Reforming Washington: What Congress Can Learn From “Undercover Boss”

There is increasing interest in Congress and among conservatives about how to restore the powers and responsibilities of Congress in making laws and exercising oversight of the federal government. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) recently launched the Article 1 Project. One of Speaker Ryan’s (R-WI) six agenda task forces is dedicated to restoring constitutional authority. These are important efforts.

There is a temptation in these efforts to focus almost exclusively on what rules within Congress should be changed or what new laws can be enacted to restrain the executive branch. While rules changes and new laws are necessary, they are insufficient and, as we have seen with measures like the REINS Act, can be difficult to enact. While continuing to work on changes in rules and statutes, those concerned with restoring the powers of Congress ought to also think about what operational changes they can effectuate right now to assert more authority over the executive branch.

In the halls of Congress “oversight” is often talked about, but too often confined to the universe of holding a hearing, issuing a subpoena, or requesting a GAO report. Congress has two distinct oversight functions: investigative oversight and policy oversight.

Investigative oversight is the pursuit of wrongdoing on the part of the administration. Like a prosecutor pursuing a case, it is adversarial at its core.

Policy oversight, on the other hand, is Congress asserting itself as the manager of federal policy and spending. It need not always be adversarial. In fact, when done correctly, policy oversight contributes to and reinforces Congress’s exclusive authority to make laws and appropriate funds.

In the private sector, a good manager or executive doesn’t exercise oversight just by calling subordinates to his office and demanding written reports. A good manager walks the factory floor, holds his subordinates to account as much (or more) in private than in public, and makes a point of knowing what his competitors are doing. (This recent Wall Street Journal story about Olive Garden’s turnaround is instructive: LINK.)

Between full committee chairmen and subcommittee chairmen, there are more than 165 different House and Senate Republicans who wield a gavel. Together, they have the responsibility of exercising oversight over the entire federal government. Here are six ideas members of Congress should consider implementing for a more fulsome oversight effort.

1. Visit the agencies you oversee.

Meet the agency head — not just Cabinet officials, but perhaps more importantly, the political appointees who run subcabinet divisions — in his office. Tour the building, even the boring parts, and ask questions about what the staff does. A culture has developed where agency officials come to the Capitol to see members, and members seldom visit agency offices. Like the boss coming by your workstation, a visit from a chairman will put agency officials appropriately on alert.

Representative Peter Roskam (R-IL), chairman of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, and members of the subcommittee recently visited IRS headquarters. The IRS commissioner, who is often called to the Hill to testify, remarked that he had asked long-serving career staff if they ever recalled a member of Congress visiting their offices. Despite the fact that the IRS office is a mere 11 blocks from the Capitol, the visit appears to be a first.

Image Credit: General Services Administration via ABC News

On any given visit, you might find: luxurious offices (see the nearby picture of the Interior Secretary’s $220,000 bathroom) or dilapidated buildings, empty desks or piles of unprocessed paperwork, abandoned computer systems or filing systems from the 1970s, or federal employees performing tasks you had no idea the agency performed.

In the late 1990s, former Congressmen Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) and Bob Schaffer (R-CO) made surprise visits to the Departments of Education and Labor. They wandered the halls asking people what they did and why. They asked what happened to all the paperwork states and localities sent in, who read it, and what they did with it. As Hoekstra told me recently, “The Secretaries hated it and wanted people to shadow us and get us out of there as quickly as possible. Security had no idea what to do with us; they knew they shouldn’t keep us out but also knew the management never allowed people like us in.” Note that people like him and Schaffer were members of Congress on the committee of jurisdiction!

2. Make the agency head personally responsible to you by giving them your cellphone number.

Tell him to call if he ever needs anything or anything ever goes wrong. Beyond a kind gesture, this is a subtle reminder that Congress is not only here to help, but also in charge. And if something goes wrong, you never know if it will be useful to play the “why didn’t you call me, you have my cellphone number” card.

3. Demonstrate that you are a resource to the career staff by giving them your business card and contact information.

As Schaffer recently told me, “On these visits, we each took a stack of business cards. We handed them out to everyone we met. Over the next few years — yes, years — after these visits, employees of these agencies would contact us to tell us where to look and what to look for relative to waste, fraud, and abuse. Sometimes conscientious employees feared for their jobs, so they contacted us anonymously, but the information proved to be valid and actionable nonetheless.”

4. Call on the people who used to run the agency.

Few people will pay as close attention to what an agency is doing than the people who used to work there; so call the former agency heads — Democrat, Republican, even career civil service — and ask them what Congress could be doing to help the agency. While you have them, ask about what they had wanted, but were unable, to fix. Make sure they know to reach out to you and your staff if they hear of something you need to know.

5. Hold a one-on-one budget “hearing.”

Sit down with the agency head after their budget request is released. Go through it with them. Ask questions about the number of personnel and contractors. Ask about their highest and lowest priorities within the request. Before you meet, have your staff pull their Congressional Budget Justification reports. These detailed documents about agency spending and performance used to be available only to the Appropriations Committee; but thanks to former Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), they are now available publicly and contain a wealth of information. This is also a perfect occasion to ask about any unfulfilled congressional document requests or unimplemented IG or GAO recommendations. Few things focus an agency like a discussion of their budget.

6. Make a point of checking in frequently.

Most agency officials’ approach to Congress can be described in a single word: avoidance. Make that impossible by calling the agency head every couple of months to “check in.” You never know what they might reveal or fail to reveal when you ask them what they are working on.

In short, these are all steps designed to remind executive branch agencies that Congress is their manager. Agencies can’t and shouldn’t avoid Congress or hide behind annual appearances or written reports. They are going to have to do what millions of Americans do every day: engage with their boss and be held accountable.