Levin Center at Wayne Law gives congressional testimony on strengthening bipartisan oversight

The Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School today provided testimony before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on strengthening how Congress conducts oversight investigations.

Testifying on behalf of the Levin Center was Elise Bean, co-director of the Levin Center’s Washington, D.C. Office. She discussed the importance of congressional oversight and proposed a series of reforms aimed at improving the capacity of Congress to engage in bipartisan, fact-based, high-quality oversight investigations. The package of four reform proposals includes:

  1. Issuance of House legal opinions on oversight matters;
  2. Bipartisan compensation of committee clerks;
  3. Longer periods during hearings for questioning witnesses; and
  4. Committee budgets that better reflect the composition of the House.

“Good legislation – in fact, good government – requires good oversight,” said Bean, who has nearly 30 years of experience conducting congressional oversight for former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. “Congress could take a number of steps to strengthen its fact-finding function, and it is exciting that the Modernization Committee is taking a look at Congress’ oversight needs.”

The Levin Center, along with the Project on Government Oversight, The Lugar Center, and American Oversight, presented the four reform recommendations to the modernization panel in an Aug. 21, 2019 letter. Each group is versed in congressional oversight and strongly supports fact-based, bipartisan oversight investigations. 

“Oversight hearings are platforms where the public sees Congress doing its job,” Bean said. “Improving oversight investigations will enable members from both sides of the aisle to work together and help break the cycle of partisan gridlock and low public approval ratings that make it difficult for Congress to govern, let alone tackle pressing problems.”

The reforms recommended by the Levin Center and its partner organizations would require a series of changes to the Rules of the House of Representatives. The recommendations include the following:

Issue House legal opinions on oversight matters

Require the House to develop, issue, and make publicly available legal opinions on matters related to oversight. Currently, neither the House nor the Senate has a set of legal opinions equivalent to those provided by the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice, which provide guidance to executive agencies and courts on how to respond to requests for information from Congress. By providing thoughtful, detailed, and well-supported written analyses, congressional legal opinions could educate members of Congress, committees, and federal agencies about their oversight rights and responsibilities, help establish oversight norms, and strengthen the legal positions taken by Congress in court.” 

Require joint compensation of committee clerks

Require House committee clerks and other administrative staff to be compensated jointly by the majority and minority parties to facilitate nonpartisan administrative support for oversight investigations. Senate committee chairs and ranking minority members already jointly hire their administrative personnel and typically split their compensation on a 50-50 basis. That approach has strengthened Senate committees by saving them money (because there is no need to hire two clerks) and encouraging a bipartisan, even-handed administration of their oversight activities. The House could adopt a similar approach.

Encourage longer periods for questioning witnesses

Allow the chair and ranking member of a House committee or subcommittees holding an oversight hearing, at the beginning of each witness panel, to each question the panel for a longer period than the five minutes typical in most House hearings. The recent House impeachment hearings allocated 45 minutes to each side of the aisle at the beginning of each hearing, leading to a more coherent and meaningful exchange between the committee and its witnesses. The longer periods enabled committee leadership to establish the facts, get into important details, and prevent witnesses from engaging in tactics to avoid answering questions. 

Require committee budgets to better reflect the composition of the House

Require funds allocated to House committees be split roughly in proportion to the partisan division in the House, rather than the two-thirds/one-third basis that currently prevails. The Senate already follows that approach, preventing dramatic swings in committee funding when control of Congress changes hands and the disruption in committee operations that follows, including the loss of experienced investigators. The House could follow suit.

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Kaylee Place

Emily VanBarr

The Levin Center at Wayne Law is a bipartisan organization at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit founded in honor of former U.S. Senator Carl Levin who led numerous bipartisan Senate investigations during his 36 years in office and remains active in the center’s administration. The center’s mission is to foster bipartisan, fact-based, high-quality legislative oversight as well as civil discourse on important policy issues. In pursuit of its mission, the Levin Center provides oversight training, sponsors conferences, supports research and offers other oversight resources.

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