Required Reports: A Proposal for an Aggregated View


(cross posted from OHP)

Many acts of Congress are passed with a reporting requirement. Throughout the US Code are various requirements that agencies submit reports to Congress. This is a good thing, since strong congressional oversight can create constructive incentives within agencies (and, by extension, the entities those agencies regulate).

much much more below:

Here’s the problem: agencies often ignore these reporting requirements entirely, turn in reports late, or don’t even know what reports are required of them. Staff and Members on oversight committees are sometimes similarly delinquent, unaware of what reports may be pending or overdue.

Anytime the overseers and the overseen aren’t aware of the reporting they’re required to prepare, oversight has no chance of doing its job. If this is sometimes the case within the executive and Congress, what chance does the public have of keeping track of what government is doing? Pretty slim.

There’s no centralized list of upcoming reports, so congressional oversight staff, journalists, and agency staff have no menu of reporting responsibilities, and are stuck making assumptions based on what is often an incomplete view of statutorily mandated responsibilities.

I’m proposing a solution to this situation, see the end of this post for a summary.

A few months ago, I suggested a partial fix to this problem — a requirement that oversight plans, as prepared by congressional committees in the US House (and not the Senate) be given two additional requirements. First, I suggested that after the oversight plans for each coming Congress are created, they should be made public by the Clerk of the House and the Oversight and Government Reform Committees, where they’re only required to be submitted now, not published. (The House Rules Committee, for example, does this now. I’d like to see a page or document with all committees’ oversight plans.) This would provide a central place to see the collected oversight plans from across all House committees, not unlike the document now compiled that has all House committees’ rules. That would give a centralized congressional plan for oversight, across committees, but wouldn’t ensure that committee staff, agency staff, or the public knew what reporting to expect from the agencies.

That’s the second part of my earlier suggestion: to require that House committees’ oversight plans contain a list of expected reporting within their jurisdiction. (I’m ignoring the Senate here.) It turns out that this requirement is suggested within the House Oversight Manual, under the section “Selected Oversight Techniques:”

1. Prepare a document, as needed, which outlines for each subcommittee of a standing committee the agencies, laws, programs activities, functions, advisory committees, and required agency reports that fall within its jurisdictional purview.

So that’s where my proposal stood a week ago: amend House Rules to require a list of expected reports from agencies, and provide a central place from which to access all of the oversight plans.

I still like that proposal, but further reflection reveals this as utterly insufficient. How can effective oversight be mandated through self-imposed rules changes on Congress? I still hold that those two changes would go a long way toward encouraging oversight, but without addressing the negligence or disorganization within the executive, Rules changes can only help so much.

After several conversations with subject matter experts, I have two additional suggestions for strengthening Congressional (and public) oversight of the Executive Branch.

First, the first step toward any legislative or rules changes will probably be to appreciate the scope of the reporting requirements. CRS should be instructed to do a review of all of the pending agency report expected over, say, the next year. If this were organized both chronologically and by agency, that document would immediately be immensely valuable to all committee staff preparing the next Congress’s oversight plan, and also to the agency staff responsible for prepring the reports. It would tell them what’s expected from them, and what they can expect to have delivered to them, and when.

This CRS review of pending agency reports should also prove the value of having an aggregated reporting list to agency officials and Members of Congress both, regardless of political affiliation. If you’re inclined to be critical of the next administration, then a menu of report cards should look like opportunity for criticism. If you’re inclined to defend the next administration, then accountable and effective agencies should know when their next reports to Congress and the public are due.

Second, ongoing publication of expected (and overdue) reports (by chronology and agency) should be a responsibility taken on by the administration. Two candidates for this responsibility:

OIRA – The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs OIRA, part of OMB, seems like a natural fit, since congressional reporting is agency-created information. OMB seems wary of taking on enforcement responsibility, so this could be a hard sell.

OLC – The Office of Legal Counsel OLC, part of the Department of Justice, is responsible for interpreting the law on behalf of the administration. Who better to remind the agencies of just what their legally mandated responsibilities are?

I’d just like to add that there’s some precedent for this sort of thing, in the Unified Agenda, or “Semiannual Regulatory Agenda” which gives a prospective view of the next six months of rulemaking activity.

A “Semiannual Reporting Prospectus” should be similarly compliled, submitted to the Congress itself, and published in the Federal register.

If financial reports, political polls, annual job reviews, and students’ report cards can all be organized and coordinated so that we live in expectation of what they’ll say, shouldn’t we be able to do as well with our government? The US Code may be as splintered and complex as the committee jurisdictions that oversee them, but our public view of their performance doesn’t have to suffer from their inherited discord.

A few simple adjustments can clarify and strengthen oversight of executive agencies:

  • Committees should write oversight plans, which include what reports they expect to see from agencies, with dates (as required by law).
  • Congress should publish these reports in a central document or location.
  • Congress should request a CRS survey of all required agency reports for the coming year.
  • The executive branch should assign responsibility for oversight reporting to a specific agency, and submit a menu of upcoming reports to Congress and publish it in the Federal Register.

Additional info:

Here’s a few reporting requirements I picked out of the US Code: strategic plans responsibilities of the Secretary of Agriculture

and here is a reporting requirement of the Secretary of Education