Parliamentary Outreach Program


What is the Basis for Congressional Oversight?

Congressional oversight is one of the most important responsibilities of the United States Congress. Congressional oversight refers to the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal agencies, programs and policy implementation, and it provides the legislative branch with an opportunity to inspect, examine, review and check the executive branch and its agencies. The authority of Congress to do oversight is derived from its implied powers in the U.S. Constitution, various laws, and House rules. In affirming Congress' oversight powers, the Supreme Court in McGrain v. Daugherty stated that "the power of inquiry – with process to enforce it – is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function." In Watkins v. United States the Court described Congress' oversight power by stating that the "power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad." The Supreme Court also observed that "a legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information respecting the conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change." The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 mandated that House and Senate committees exercise "continuous watchfulness" of the administration of laws and programs under their jurisdiction. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 permitted House standing committees to "review and study, on a continuing basis, the application, administration and execution of laws" under its jurisdiction.

Why Does Congress Need to Do Oversight?

  • Ensure executive compliance with legislative intent.
  • Improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and economy of governmental operations.
  • Evaluate program performance.
  • Prevent executive encroachment on legislative prerogatives and powers.
  • Investigate alleged instances of poor administration, arbitrary and capricious behavior, abuse, waste, dishonesty, and fraud.
  • Assess an agency or official's ability to manage and carry out program objectives.
  • Review and determine federal financial priorities.
  • Ensure that executive policies reflect the public interest.
  • Protect individual rights and liberties.
  • Review agency rule-making processes.
  • Acquire information useful in future policymaking.

What Do the Rules of the House Require of Committees With Respect to Oversight?

Clause 2(b)(1) of Rule X - Each standing committee, except Appropriations, shall review and study on a continuing basis the application, administration, and execution of all laws within its legislative jurisdiction.

Clause 2(d) of Rule X - Each standing committee is to submit its oversight plans for the duration of a Congress by February 15 of the first session to the Committees on Government Reform and House Administration. Not later than March 31, the Committee on Government Reform must report an oversight agenda.

Clauses 2(b)(2) and 5(d) of Rule X - Each standing Committee is authorized to require its subcommittees to conduct oversight in their jurisdictional areas or to create an oversight subcommittee.

Clause 1(d)(1) of Rule XI - Each committee must submit to the House, not later than January 2 of each odd-numbered year, a report on the activities of that committee for the Congress.

Clause 1(d)(2) of Rule XI - The survey of activities report must include separate sections summarizing the legislative and oversight activities of that committee during that Congress.

Clause 1(d)(3) of Rule XI - The oversight section of the survey of activities report must include a summary of the oversight plans submitted by the committee at the beginning of the Congress, a summary of the actions taken, recommendations made with respect to each such plan, and a summary of any additional oversight activities undertaken by that committee.

Clause 3(c) of Rule XIII - Committee reports on measures must include oversight findings separately set out and clearly identified.

****For further reference see "Congressional Oversight - A How to Series of Workshops", 106th Congress Rules Committee Print, June 28, July 12, and 26, 1999; "Congressional Oversight" by Frederick M. Kaiser (CRS), updated February 16, 1999 and the "Congressional Oversight Manual" (CRS), updated June 25, 1999.