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"What's In It For Me?": Why Members of Congress Pursue Oversight
Unformatted Document Text:  Newt Gingrich formed numerous ad hoc legislative task forces to formulate policy pro-posals on poverty, Medicare, bank regulation, narcotics and trade policy, among othertopics (Oleszek, 1999). These Gingrich-allied groups’ proposals would then be considereddirectly by the Committee on the Whole, allowing the Speaker’s favored legislation tobypass the standing committees with jurisdiction. In other instances, the Republicanleadership used the loyalist-stacked Appropriations Committee to write laws (via riders),thereby avoiding the less agreeable authorization committees with jurisdiction in theseareas (Aldrich & Rohde, 2000). Thus, compared to other possible activities where par-ticipation is limited to a select subset of MCs, oversight hearings are more egalitarian, 70 and hence, more attractive for some certain MCs. I argue, therefore, that MCs will pursue oversight by choice and by necessity. I write “by choice” because oversight hearings offer opportunities for reelection-minded MCs tofurther their goals, because hearing rooms are attractive settings for position-taking, bothto enhance one’s own “brand name” (Mayhew, 1974) and to bolster the party’s brand,which can similarly lift the electoral prospects of individual MCs (Cox & McCubbins,1993). I write “by necessity” because, with senior party leaders dominating the legislativeprocess, backbenchers have limited opportunities to voice their issue positions on CapitolHill. 71 Therefore, I claim that oversight hearings are attractive venues for participation, particularly for those MCs who are most concerned about their reelection prospects andfor those who have few other opportunities for influence. Taken together, these findings present a dim view of oversight – that it is pursued, reluctantly, by those MCs with few other avenues for influence. In an imagined legislaturewithout time and resource scarcity and in which all members have an equal – and non-trivial – likelihood of realizing their legislative goals, perhaps much less attention wouldbe paid to oversight. In the contemporary Congress, however, actual constraints, unequalpower, and differing amounts of gridlock on different (sub)committees and policy areasall encourage MCs (with diverse motivations) to turn to oversight. To conclude on a less pessimistic note, simply because oversight may not be MCs’ MCs play a greater role in lawmaking than others. In Krehbiel’s House, jurisdictional “property rights”give committee members greater influence in their respective policy areas. Also, the median MC on thefloor has greater power in the legislative process than most MCs, as do, perhaps, those MCs with idealpoints that are consistently on the “winning” side of the median MC. 70 As previously mentioned, minority party rights to call witnesses exist in oversight hearings, and norms of universalism regarding participation are observed to a greater extent than in other areas. 71 I also argue that participating in hearings is also a relatively low-cost activity for MCs (compared to other functions), making it an attractive avenue for participation for resource-scarce MCs out of“necessity.” Whereas bill sponsorship requires that the MC’s staff spend time crafting the bill and thatthe MC himself spend time and political capital convincing his colleagues to support the bill (or whereasconstituent service requires staff resources), participating in hearings seems relatively low-cost. MCs andtheir staffs simply must devise a handful of questions to ask during their allotted time, then attend onlya small part of the hearing to ask those questions. (At times – as with Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH)recent confusion of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsonduring her questioning of Bernanke – it seems that MCs invest even less time in preparing for hearings.) This is not to say, however, that oversight hearings are costless. Indeed, according to former Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-MN), in order to conduct effective oversight hearings, a committee must “arrange details from the GAO and elsewhere, issue information requests, do staff interviews, issuesubpoenas if necessary, and follow the evidence.” (Source: Sikorski, Gerry. “Healthy oversight at hand.”The Hill. 12 December 2006.) Recognizing the resource costs involved in oversight, Aberbach (1990)includes a ‘committee staff resources’ variable in his analysis. 41

Authors: Feinstein, Brian.
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background image
Newt Gingrich formed numerous ad hoc legislative task forces to formulate policy pro-
posals on poverty, Medicare, bank regulation, narcotics and trade policy, among other
topics (Oleszek, 1999). These Gingrich-allied groups’ proposals would then be considered
directly by the Committee on the Whole, allowing the Speaker’s favored legislation to
bypass the standing committees with jurisdiction. In other instances, the Republican
leadership used the loyalist-stacked Appropriations Committee to write laws (via riders),
thereby avoiding the less agreeable authorization committees with jurisdiction in these
areas (Aldrich & Rohde, 2000). Thus, compared to other possible activities where par-
ticipation is limited to a select subset of MCs, oversight hearings are more egalitarian,
70
and hence, more attractive for some certain MCs.
I argue, therefore, that MCs will pursue oversight by choice and by necessity. I write
“by choice” because oversight hearings offer opportunities for reelection-minded MCs to
further their goals, because hearing rooms are attractive settings for position-taking, both
to enhance one’s own “brand name” (Mayhew, 1974) and to bolster the party’s brand,
which can similarly lift the electoral prospects of individual MCs (Cox & McCubbins,
1993). I write “by necessity” because, with senior party leaders dominating the legislative
process, backbenchers have limited opportunities to voice their issue positions on Capitol
Hill.
71
Therefore, I claim that oversight hearings are attractive venues for participation,
particularly for those MCs who are most concerned about their reelection prospects and
for those who have few other opportunities for influence.
Taken together, these findings present a dim view of oversight – that it is pursued,
reluctantly, by those MCs with few other avenues for influence. In an imagined legislature
without time and resource scarcity and in which all members have an equal – and non-
trivial – likelihood of realizing their legislative goals, perhaps much less attention would
be paid to oversight. In the contemporary Congress, however, actual constraints, unequal
power, and differing amounts of gridlock on different (sub)committees and policy areas
all encourage MCs (with diverse motivations) to turn to oversight.
To conclude on a less pessimistic note, simply because oversight may not be MCs’
MCs play a greater role in lawmaking than others. In Krehbiel’s House, jurisdictional “property rights”
give committee members greater influence in their respective policy areas. Also, the median MC on the
floor has greater power in the legislative process than most MCs, as do, perhaps, those MCs with ideal
points that are consistently on the “winning” side of the median MC.
70
As previously mentioned, minority party rights to call witnesses exist in oversight hearings, and
norms of universalism regarding participation are observed to a greater extent than in other areas.
71
I also argue that participating in hearings is also a relatively low-cost activity for MCs (compared
to other functions), making it an attractive avenue for participation for resource-scarce MCs out of
“necessity.” Whereas bill sponsorship requires that the MC’s staff spend time crafting the bill and that
the MC himself spend time and political capital convincing his colleagues to support the bill (or whereas
constituent service requires staff resources), participating in hearings seems relatively low-cost. MCs and
their staffs simply must devise a handful of questions to ask during their allotted time, then attend only
a small part of the hearing to ask those questions. (At times – as with Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH)
recent confusion of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson
during her questioning of Bernanke – it seems that MCs invest even less time in preparing for hearings.)
This is not to say, however, that oversight hearings are costless.
Indeed, according to former
Rep.
Gerry Sikorski (D-MN), in order to conduct effective oversight hearings, a committee must
“arrange details from the GAO and elsewhere, issue information requests, do staff interviews, issue
subpoenas if necessary, and follow the evidence.” (Source: Sikorski, Gerry. “Healthy oversight at hand.”
The Hill. 12 December 2006.) Recognizing the resource costs involved in oversight, Aberbach (1990)
includes a ‘committee staff resources’ variable in his analysis.
41


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