14. WHO'S OVERSEEING CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT?
is one of Congress's chief responsibilities, along with writing laws, raising
revenue and spending public money. So why is it that on the whole, Congress is
failing that responsibility, allowing waste, fraud and abuse to go unchecked throughout
the federal bureaucracy? A National Academy of Public Administration report once
charged it's because "Congressional oversight in general is more geared to
garnering media attention" than making government work better. According
to current and former Congressional investigators, the oversight process today
is in a shambles; many investigations are superficial and scattershot at best.
Too many lawmakers are ambivalent about oversight and subject to pressure from
the targets of their investigations. Sources within federal agencies have withered;
many whistleblowers, no longer nurtured by Congress, remain silent.
(or worse) example can be found than the Government Operations Committee -- designed
to be the House of Representatives' most tenacious government watchdog. The committee
has floundered since Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) replaced the tough Rep. Jack
Brooks (D-Texas), who had chaired the committee for 13 years. "We have 360-degree
authority to pursue waste, fraud and abuse," says committee member Christopher
Shays (R-Conn.), "and we should strike fear in the hearts of bureaucrats
and contractors. But nobody's afraid."
Sources on and off Conyers'
committee say the chairman, who has solicited and received contributions from
a number of parties with a stake in his committee's investigations, isn't aggressive
or focused enough. The 14-term lawmaker, in one insider's words, tends to "accommodate
the people being investigated rather than the investigators." In fact, Conyers'
accommodating nature cost 15-year congressional investigator Tom Trimboli his
job -- for doing his job too well. This is the same Tom Trimboli who played a
key role in uncovering the Wedtech scandal. The same Tom Trimboli who Conyers
called "as good as they get" -- six months before dismissing him.
dismissal was the result of a committee investigation, led by Trimboli, of the
Unisys corporation, a major defense contractor. Trimboli was looking into charges
that Unisys was defrauding the government in a $1.7 billion computer contract
they had won with the Air Force. It took only one unhappy phone call to Rep. Conyers
from Unisys Chair Michael Blumenthal before Trimboh was fired, paralyzing the
Unisys investigation. To this date, no hearings have been held and no final committee
report has been issued.
The sad state of congressional oversight is best summarized by 30-year
veteran investigator Don Gray, who recently left the Hill. According
to Gray, seldom heard are the sweetest words a lawmaker can say to an
investigator: "Take it where it goes. I'll back you up all the
CENSORED RESEARCHER: RACHAEL KINBERG
SOURCE: COMMON CAUSE, 2030 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036
DATE: July/August 1991
TITLE: "See No Evil"
AUTHOR: Jeffrey Denny
COMMENTS: Jeffrey Denny, senior editor at Common Cause, charges
that "The problem addressed in 'See No Evil' -- waste, fraud and
abuse runs largely unchecked through the federal government because
Congress's oversight function has been undermined by lawmakers' close
relationship with special interests and federal agencies -- by its very
nature receives insufficient exposure in the mass media.
'The mass media by and large views Congress's oversight
committees as friendly sources, ignoring the confluence of pressures -- i.e. lawmakers'
need to raise campaign money from special interests and win favors for constituents
from bureaucrats -- that undermine tough, effective enforcement.
"Too often the mainstream media has been used by publicity-seeking
members of Congress whose 'investigations' are little more than quick-hit
press events. And when oversight efforts are reported, key questions
unasked: Was the committee lobbied
by the target to ease up and what was the impact of the lobbying effort? Did the
target provide campaign-contributions to members of the committee? Did the committee
use all its powers to compel testimony and documents from the executive branch?
Were findings used to achieve action, such as Justice Department prosecution?
three recent cases, the mass media missed a key angle in its coverage of the HUD,
S&L and Iran-contra scandals: Where was Congress, with all its oversight powers,
while these scandals brewed?"
Denny says that more information about the failure of Congressional
oversight could "provoke Congress to make institutional -- and
attitudinal changes that will improve its ability to cover waste, fraud
and abuse -- perhaps improving public trust in government and saving
As it is, Denny adds "Ultimately, special interests that
are ripping off government stand to benefit from the lack of coverage of Congress's
lax oversight. So long as Congress feels it can spoon-feed the press investigatory
pabulum and fool the public into believing it really is doing something about
waste, fraud and abuse, there will be no incentive for lawmakers to change."
Denny concludes that the mass media no longer can think of Congress as a friendly
source, but "rather must hold it accountable as an elected branch of government
with a serious job to do."