NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 90, Number 1

April 2015

Full of Sound and Fury: Curbing the Cost of Partisan Opportunism in Congressional Oversight Hearings

Cristian R.C. Kelly

As Congress creates bigger and broader federal programs and administrative agencies, appropriates larger sums on their behalf, and delegates more of its legislative authority to their leaders, it takes on a commensurate responsibility to diligently oversee those agencies. Because time and resources available for congressional oversight are limited, a committee’s decision to conduct a formal oversight hearing implicates a substantial opportunity cost. At the same time, oversight hearings present committees with considerable opportunities for grandstanding and political gamesmanship. The voting public should therefore demand that congressional committees use oversight hearings efficiently, pursuing benefits like agency accountability, transparency, and democratic legitimacy, rather than the committees’ own partisan electoral advantage. However, because congressional committees are complex political institutions and because legitimate oversight benefits can often coincide with partisan political objectives, the distinction is not always easy to discern from the outside. With these nuances in mind, I argue that the outside observer can infer a committee’s underlying motivations and predict a given hearing’s likely benefits by looking for specific patterns in the way the hearing is conducted—i.e., the hearing’s “operational functions.”