Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Rooting out Waste, Fraud, and Abuse: The Politics of House Committee Investigations, 1947 to 2004

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Rooting out Waste, Fraud, and Abuse: The Politics of House Committee Investigations, 1947 to 2004

Article excerpt


Scholars have long bemoaned congressional disinterest in oversight. We explain varied congressional attention to oversight by advancing the contingent oversight theory. We show how the structure of congressional committees, partisan majorities, and theories of delegation together explain when, why, and for how long Congress investigated executive branch malfeasance between 1947 and 2004. Divided government, partisan committees, and committees characterized by broad statutory discretion generate more investigations, whereas distributive committees and unified government dampen Congress' investigatory vigor. The conduct of oversight depends on more than a desire to produce good government or the incentive structures faced by individual members of Congress.


oversight, Congress, president, divided government, committees


Committee hearings have been instruments of congressional power from the early decades of American govern- ment, but the pursuit of effective and efficient government is only one incentive for Congress and its members to oversee the executive branch.1 The House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings investigating commu- nist infiltration in the late 1940s are attributed variously to legitimate concerns about Soviet espionage, partisan- inspired Republican attacks on a Democratic administra- tion, and the political ambitions of committee members. Sixty years later, Government Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's (D-CA) hearings scrutinizing the use of military contractors were attrib- uted at once to the public interest, partisanship, and per- sonal ambition (Weisman 2007). We explain the decision to launch and sustain congressional investigations with a contingent model of oversight politics, by which we mean that the exercise of congressional oversight varies jointly with institutional-, committee-, and individual- level dynamics. We study the frequency and duration of "fire alarm" style committee investigations of alleged executive branch misdeeds between 1947 and 2004, organizing the analysis around three sets of dynamics: institutions, committees, and reputations. Contrary to theories positing that congressional oversight is mostly a function of member incentives, the pursuit of efficient government, or constitutional design, contingent oversight theory shows how party majorities, committee structures, and statutory discretion are far more important in determining when and for how long Congress turns its "watchful eye" on the executive branch.

Sustained periods of divided party rule coupled with intensifying partisan and institutional conflict have raised the possibility that extra-legislative activities such as oversight have become venues for political combat (e.g., Ginsberg and Shefter 2002). David R. Mayhew's (1991) empirical challenge to this perspective inspired scholar- ship refining how political scientists think about the inter- play between partisan conflict and institutional politics.2 Subsequent research examining the consequences of divided government shows congressional investigations correlate with partisan institutional conflict, contingent on factors such as party strength, variations between House and Senate rules, and shifting institutional arrangements (Kriner and Schwartz 2008; Parker and Dull 2009). We extend this research by demonstrating that partisan institu- tional conflict is not only correlated with investigations over time, from one congressional or presidential term to another, but also with particular types of committees. We reveal how partisan "cartel" style committees are espe- cially sensitive to the presence of divided government in the decision to investigate the executive branch for accu- sations of wrongdoing.

Congressional oversight is also contingent on committee- and member-level dynamics in the context of delegated bureaucratic discretion. Contemporary scholarship on con- gressional oversight organizes efforts to explain these dynamics around two distinct purposes. …

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