“CONSTITUTING AMERICA” SERIES ON CONGRESSIONAL HISTORY
Since the Roman Senate, there has always been a need for a smaller group of Members to focus on details before actions are considered by the entire assembly. This is a better use of time, as Members are not equally interested or versed in every topic under consideration.
Committees to support the legislative process in America’s colonies started in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1642.
The drafting of America’s Declaration of Independence was the act of a committee.
On May 15, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling on all thirteen colonies to form governments representing colonial interests independent of the British Crown. Congress then authorized the drafting of preamble explaining the reasons for and purposes of this action. On June 11, 1776, Congress appointed a “Committee of Five” to draft this “declaration”. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman were appointed.
In the past, Appropriations Committees met to build the case for spending public funds. Administration witnesses made their case for spending. Appropriation Committee Members made their alternative case, opposing or supporting what the Administration witnesses proposed. Oversight reports and hearings guided spending and reforms.
What should occur is a dialogue designed to align Congressional intent, and Executive Branch actions. Representative government is fundamental to validating public spending.
What should emerge is legislation filled with spending numbers. Supporting these numbers should be a narrative, in the public hearing record and committee reports, building a compelling case for how and why public finds are being spent, or not spent.
None of this happen anymore. Few, if any Appropriation bills pass. Concurrent Resolutions or Omnibus spending bills are generated at the last moment to meet spending deadlines. Political expediency, not representative government, drives the legislation.
In 2015, there were 128 House Appropriation hearings prior to marking-up legislation. In 2016 there were only 88. The House listened to 253 Administration witnesses, but only seven of the 73 Inspector Generals. No one from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was involved. No one from private oversight groups, documenting government waste and abuse, were heard.
It gets worse. In the 1980s and 1990s, Appropriation hearings lasted three or more hours. Hearings in 2016 averaged 77 minutes. When you factor in the opening remarks from the Chair and Ranking Member and the opening statement of the main witness, less than 25 minutes were devoted to questioning witnesses at each hearing. Very few Members attend or participate.
House Committees broadcast their hearings online and archive them as podcasts. None of the 47 Senate Appropriation hearings were broadcast or archived. The public only knows that three Inspector Generals appeared, and there was no one from the GAO or government watchdog groups. The public remains uninformed as to what 121 Senate witnesses had to say beyond the text of their prepared remarks. Senators’ questions are also a mystery.
Congressional hearings, the embodiment of representative government, are deteriorating. This undermines the carefully crafted balancing of powers in the U.S. Constitution.
Representative government means its elected officials must do their duty. Even “boring” management oversight is important, especially to taxpayers concerned about how their hard earned money is spent.