Updated January 2, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Frederick M. Kaiser
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Congressional oversight of policy implementation and administration, which has
occurred throughout the U.S. government experience under the Constitution, takes a
variety of forms and utilizes various techniques. These range from specialized
investigations by select committees to annual appropriations hearings, and from informal
communications between Members or congressional staff and executive personnel to the
use of extra congressional mechanisms, such as offices of inspector general and study
commissions. Oversight, moreover, is supported by a variety of authorities—the
Constitution, public law, and chamber and committee rules—and is an integral part of
the system of checks and balances between the legislature and the executive. This report
will be updated as events require.
Organization and Operations
Congressional oversight refers to the review, monitoring, and supervision of federal
agencies, programs, activities, and policy implementation. Congress exercises this power
largely through its standing committee system. However, oversight, which dates to the
earliest days of the Republic, also occurs in a wide variety of congressional activities and
contexts. These include authorization, appropriations, investigative, and legislative
hearings by standing committees; specialized investigations by select committees; and
reviews and studies by congressional support agencies and staff.
Congress’s oversight authority derives from its “implied” powers in the Constitution,
public laws, and House and Senate rules. It is an integral part of the American system of
checks and balances.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Principles and Purposes
Underlying the legislature's ability to oversee the executive are democratic principles
as well as practical purposes. John Stuart Mill, the British Utilitarian philosopher, insisted
that oversight was the key feature of a meaningful representative body: “The proper office
of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government.”1 As a young scholar
and future President, Woodrow Wilson—in his 1885 treatise, Congressional
Government—equated oversight with lawmaking, which was usually seen as the supreme
function of a legislature. He wrote, “Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight
The philosophical underpinning for oversight is the Constitution’s system of checks
and balances among the legislature, executive, and judiciary. James Madison, known as
the “Father of the Constitution,” described the system in Federalist No. 51 as establishing
“subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the
several offices in such a manner that each may be a check on the other.”
Oversight, as an outgrowth of this principle, ideally serves a number of overlapping
objectives and purposes:
! improve the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of governmental operations;
! evaluate programs and performance;
! detect and prevent poor administration, waste, abuse, arbitrary and capricious
behavior, or illegal and unconstitutional conduct;
! protect civil liberties and constitutional rights;
! inform the general public and ensure that executive policies reflect the public
! gather information to develop new legislative proposals or to amend existing
! ensure administrative compliance with legislative intent; and
! prevent executive encroachment on legislative authority and prerogatives.
In sum, oversight is a way for Congress to check on, and check, the executive.
John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (London: Parker, Son, and
Bourn, 1861), p. 104.
Woodrow Wilson, Congressional Government (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), p. 297.
Powers and Prerogatives
The U.S. Constitution
Although the Constitution grants no formal, express authority to oversee or
investigate the executive or program administration, oversight is implied in Congress’s
impressive array of enumerated powers.3 The legislature is authorized to appropriate
funds; raise and support armies; provide for and maintain a navy; declare war; provide for
organizing and calling forth the national guard; regulate interstate and foreign commerce;
establish post offices and post roads; advise and consent on treaties and presidential
nominations (Senate); and impeach (House) and try (Senate) the President, Vice President,
and civil officers for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Reinforcing these powers is Congress’s broad authority “to make all laws which shall
be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other
powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any
Department or Officer thereof.”
The authority to oversee derives from these constitutional powers. Congress could
not carry them out reasonably or responsibly without knowing what the executive is doing;
how programs are being administered, by whom, and at what cost; and whether officials
are obeying the law and complying with legislative intent. The Supreme Court has
legitimated Congress’s investigative power, subject to constitutional safeguards for civil
liberties. In 1927, the Court found that, in investigating the administration of the
Department of Justice, Congress was considering a subject “on which legislation could be
had or would be materially aided by the information which the investigation was calculated
The “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution also allows Congress to enact
laws that mandate oversight by its committees, grant relevant authority to itself and its
support agencies, and impose specific obligations on the executive to report to or consult
with Congress, and even seek its approval for specific actions.
Broad oversight mandates exist for the legislature in several significant statutes. The
Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (P.L. 79-601), for the first time, explicitly called
for “legislative oversight” in public law. It directed House and Senate standing committees
“to exercise continuous watchfulness” over programs and agencies under their jurisdiction;
authorized professional staff for them; and enhanced the powers of the Comptroller
General, the head of Congress’s investigative and audit arm, the General Accounting
Office (GAO). The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-510) authorized each
standing committee to “review and study, on a continuing basis, the application,
administration and execution” of laws under its jurisdiction; increased the professional staff
Article I, Sec. 8 and Article II, Secs. 2 and 4.
McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 177 (1927); see also Watkins v. United States, 354
U.S. 178, 187 (1957), and Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109, 111 (1959).
of committees; expanded the assistance provided by the Congressional Research Service;
and strengthened the program evaluation responsibilities of GAO. The Congressional
Budget Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-344) allowed committees to conduct program evaluation
themselves or contract out for it; strengthened GAO’s role in acquiring fiscal, budgetary,
and program-related information; and upgraded GAO’s review capabilities.
Besides these general powers, numerous statutes direct the executive to furnish
information to or consult with Congress. For example, the Government Performance and
Results Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-62) requires agencies to consult with Congress on their
strategic plans and report annually on performance plans, goals, and results. In fact, more
than 2,000 reports are submitted each year to Congress by federal departments, agencies,
commissions, bureaus, and offices. Inspectors general (IGs), for instance, report their
findings about waste, fraud, and abuse, and their recommendations for corrective action,
periodically to the agency head and Congress. The IGs are also instructed to issue special
reports concerning particularly serious problems immediately to the agency head, who
transmits them unaltered to Congress within seven days. The Reports Consolidation Act
of 2000 (P.L. 106-531), moreover, instructs the IGs to identify and describe their
agencies’ most serious management and performance challenges and briefly assess
progress in addressing them. This new requirement is to be part of a larger effort by
individual agencies to consolidate their numerous reports on financial and performance
management matters into a single annual report. The aim is to enhance coordination and
efficiency within the agencies; improve the quality of relevant information; and provide it
in a more meaningful and useful format for Congress, the President, and the public.
In addition, Congress creates commissions and establishes task forces to study and
make recommendations for select policy areas that can also involve examination of
executive operations and organizations.
There is a long history behind executive reports to Congress. Indeed, one of the first
laws of the First Congress—the 1789 Act to establish the Treasury Department (1 Stat.
66)—called upon the Secretary and the Treasurer to report directly to Congress on public
expenditures and all accounts. The Secretary was also required “to make report, and give
information to either branch of the legislature ... respecting all matters referred to him by
the Senate or House of Representatives, or which shall appertain to his office.”
Separate from such reporting obligations, public employees may provide information
to Congress on their own. In the early part of the 20th century, Congress enacted
legislation to overturn a “gag” rule, issued by the President, that prohibited employees
from communicating directly with Congress (5 U.S.C. 7211 (1994)). Other
“whistleblower” statutes, which have been extended specifically to cover personnel in the
intelligence community (P.L. 105-272), guarantee the right of government employees to
petition or furnish information to Congress or a Member.
House and Senate Rules
Chamber rules also reinforce the oversight function. House and Senate rules, for
instance, provide for “special oversight” or “comprehensive policy oversight,”
respectively, for specified committees over matters that relate to their authorizing
jurisdiction. In addition, House rules direct each standing committee to require its
subcommittees to conduct oversight or to establish an oversight subcommittee for this
purpose. House rules also call for each committee to submit an oversight agenda, listing
its prospective oversight topics for the ensuing Congress, to the House Committee on
Government Reform, which compiles and prints the agendas.
The House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee, which have oversight jurisdiction over virtually the entire federal government,
furthermore, are authorized to review and study the operation of government activities to
determine their economy and efficiency and to submit recommendations based on GAO
reports. In addition, House rules require that the findings and recommendations from the
Government Reform Committee be considered by authorizing panels, if presented to them
in a timely fashion.
Activities and Avenues
Oversight occurs through a wide variety of congressional activities and avenues.
Some of the most publicized are the comparatively rare investigations by select
committees into major scandals or into executive branch operations gone awry. Cases in
point are temporary select committee inquiries into: China’s acquisition of U.S. nuclear
weapons information, in 1999; the Iran-Contra affair, in 1987; intelligence agency abuses,
in 1975-1976, and “Watergate,” in 1973-1974. The precedent for this kind of oversight
actually goes back two centuries: in 1792, a special House committee investigated the
ignominious defeat of an Army force by confederated Indian tribes. By comparison to
these select panel investigations, other congressional inquiries in recent Congresses—into
Whitewater, access to Federal Bureau of Investigation files, White House Travel Office
firings, and campaign financing—have relied upon standing committees.
The impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998 in the House and
in 1999 in the Senate also generated considerable oversight. It not only encompassed the
President and the White House staff, but also extended to the office of independent
counsel, prompted by concerns about its authority, jurisdiction, and expenditures.
Although such highly visible endeavors are significant, they usually reflect only a
small portion of Congress’s total oversight effort. More routine and regular review,
monitoring, and supervision occur in other congressional activities and contexts.
Especially important are appropriations hearings on agency budgets as well as
authorization hearings for existing programs. Separately, examinations of executive
operations and the implementation of programs—by congressional staff, support agencies,
and specially created commissions and task forces—provide additional oversight.
Joel D. Aberbach, Keeping Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight
(Washington: Brookings Institution, 1990).
Frederick M. Kaiser, “Congressional Oversight of the Presidency,” Annals, vol. 499, Sept.
1988, pp. 75-89.
David R. Mayhew, Divided We Govern: Party Control, Lawmaking, and Investigations,
1946-1990 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
Walter J. Oleszek, “Legislative Oversight,” Congressional Procedure and the Policy
Process (Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2001), pp. 274-297.
Arthur M. Schlesinger and Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented
History, 1792-1974, 5 vols. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975).
Charles Tiefer, “Congressional Oversight of the Clinton Administration and Congressional
Procedure,” Administrative Law Review, vol. 50, Winter 1998, pp. 199-216.
U.S. Congress, House Committee on House Administration, “Oversight,” History of the
House of Representatives, 1789-1994, H.Doc. 103-324, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess.
(Washington: GPO, 1994), pp. 233-266.
U.S. General Accounting Office, Investigators’ Guide to Sources of Information, GAO
Report OSI-97-2 (Washington: 1997).
CRS Report RL30240 (1999), Congressional Oversight Manual (1999).
CRS Report 97-382 (1997), Government Performance and Results Act: Implications for
Congressional Oversight, by Frederick M. Kaiser and Virginia A. McMurtry.
CRS Report 95-464 (1995), Investigative Oversight, by Morton Rosenberg.
CRS Video programs (1999), VB 60016, Constitutional Context of Oversight;VB60019,
Fiscal Oversight; VB60015, Oversight: A Key Congressional Function; VB60017,
The Rules and Tools of Oversight; VB60018, Sources of Oversight Assistance.