Lost Years in the Committees


A group of bloggers at Daily Kos has started an impressive project involving citizen oversight in the coming Congress. The project, called Committee Transparency, aims to get at least one person to cover the goings-on of each and every committee in Congress and to make recommendations to make committees more transparent. This past weekend blogger greenreflex wrote one of the better blog posts on committee transparency explaining the Rules that govern public access to committee hearings and documents and the continuing lack of transparency in many committees despite public access rules.

You should really read greenreflex’ whole post about the structure of the House and Senate Rules and what they say must be made available for public consumption. The gist of it is that House and Senate Committees must “be open to the public” and “prepare and keep a complete transcript or electronic recording adequate to fully record the proceeding of each meeting or conference”. Of course, this doesn’t always happen as greenreflex shows in their post.

In the search for committee transparency and providing citizen oversight is the need to look at the recent history of the committees in Congress. The oft cited quote by Woodrow Wilson, “Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work,” provides us with a reason to be concerned about what has been transpiring behind supposedly open doors. Or in the case of the recent committees, what hasn’t been transpiring.

For right now let’s just stick to committees in the House of Representatives, the Senate can come later. Over the past two decades committee hearings and meetings have seen a fairly dramatic drop-off. Just take a look at this chart:

Since 2001 no session of Congress has held 1500 or more committee meetings. This year of 2006 House committees held 1204 meetings, the third lowest in the past twenty years. But it doesn’t really matter how many committee meetings are held so long as their substance is greatly important. It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.

This story doesn’t turn out so well either. The minority office of the House Government Reform Committee issued a report in January of this year highlighting the lack of Congressional oversight of the Executive branch. The report shows some of the past Congresses lowlights including Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner and Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis refusing to hold hearings into the detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib; Rep. Davis and Rep. Sensenbrenner refusing to investigate the leaking of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name; Rep. Davis’ refusal to subpoena “emails between [Michael] Brown and top White House officials” during hearings into the failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina; and that no committee has held hearings into procurement problems at the Department of Homeland Security.

This report only covers Congress up until 2005. So it’s about time to take a look at 2006. If there was one dominant issue in the country this year it has been the war in Iraq. You would expect Congress to hold hearings over the problems that the country is facing over there; you might even expect some committees to discuss other regional issues. (By the way, the following is only a review of Full Committee hearings and does not include Subcommittee information.) This is unfortunately not the case.

The House Armed Services Committee has held two hearings about Iraq this year. One of those hearings, held at the behest of Rep. Curt Weldon, was to determine if weapons of mass destruction still existed or not. The second hearing was held on November 15th in the wake of the Republican’s electoral defeat and the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The House International Relations Committee held the same number of hearings on Iraq this year: two. The hearings included a review of Iraq reconstruction and an update on U.S.-Iraq policy. The House Government Reform Committee also held one hearing into “the process, the progress and the problems of reconstruction contracting activities in Iraq.”

The most pressing problem of the year warranted only 5 full committee hearings, none lasting more than a day, in the House of Representatives.

On other issues, the House Resources Committee, under the Chairmanship of Rep. Richard Pombo, held no hearings into Jack Abramoff’s abuse of Indian tribes despite tribal matters being under its purview (the full committee did hold four oversight hearings on off-reservation Indian casinos, but nothing related to Abramoff’s lobbying). The Resources Committee and the Energy & Commerce Committee both failed to hold hearings into the issues of climate change and global warming. The only hearings into climate change were held by the Government Reform Committee, which held two hearings this year. The Financial Services Committee has held no hearings into backdating, the new corporate scandal.

The only top tier issue that did get a serious amount of committee attention was illegal immigration. The Judiciary Committee led the way holding five oversight hearings into the negative effects of both illegal immigration and the Senate immigration reform bill.

The full committees in the House have failed to truly examine and probe the issues of the day. They have failed to meet enough and have failed to provide the oversight, not only of the Administration, that is necessary for the American people to the heart of important issues and topics. If we are to take Wilson’s aphorism to heart than the fall in quantity and quality of committee work indicates — combined with the shortened Congressional calendar — that Congress has not been working.