Congress Needs to Develop an Oversight Backbone

Bob Barr

3/27/2013 12:01:00 AM - Bob Barr

Earlier this month, Forbes columnist and respected conservative commentator Ralph Benko penned an article calling for a “national conversation” following the Department of Homeland Security’s purchase of 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition. As Benko notes, this is enough ammunition to sustain a decades-long war -- not overseas, but here on American soil. Although the notion the government would use this ammo to wage a war against American citizens may be far-fetched, Benko is spot on about one thing: The Obama administration should, at the very least, be forced to explain why such a massive ammunition purchase is needed; especially at the very time the White House is closing its doors to citizens because of fiscal “belt tightening.”

Not surprisingly, this is a conversation in which the Obama Administration refuses to engage. “They refuse to let us know what is going on,” Congressman Tim Huelscamp (R-KA) told reporters in explaining his efforts to secure answers from the Administration regarding the massive ammunition purchase. This refusal came from the very same President who, during his first campaign in 2008, repeatedly condemned the Bush administration for its lack of transparency.

On taking office, Obama promised the “most transparent” administration in history; yet his record as President has been anything but transparent.

Frankly, it is time that Congress rediscovers and reasserts its long-neglected oversight responsibility to ensure our laws are complied with, and confirm that all public monies appropriated by the Congress to the executive branch are spent lawfully and properly. Congress must demand -- yes, demand -- this president and those working under him, testify openly and publicly about what they are doing and why.

What is needed are actions far more substantive than the political theater that for years has passed for congressional “oversight” – such as holding an occasional hearing to throw political stones at a president belonging to the “other” political party. “Oversight” of that sort is easy; true oversight on the other hand -- as contemplated by our Founders (and particularly James Madison, one of the primary authors of the Federalist Papers) -- is hard work. However, real oversight is absolutely essential if the powers enumerated to and exercised by each of the three branches of our government, are to be kept in check and on track.

When conducted with proper preparation, and in a focused and professional manner, oversight of executive branch actions can reveal serious shortcomings by government officials and help prevent recurrence; the “Waco hearings,” conducted over a two-week period in 1995, stand as an example of such an undertaking.

The impeachment hearings in 1997 conducted by the House Judiciary Committee under the able leadership of Chairman Henry Hyde, revealed to the country the recurrent obstruction of justice and pattern perjury engaged in by then-President Bill Clinton. These proceedings also presented, for the first time to the American people, the high quality of investigation conducted by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his staff; and permitted the American people to see the professionalism and integrity with which Starr’s team carried out its task.

What made these proceedings so important and productive was that they were neither headline-driven nor one-shot deals. Instead, they focused on fundamental, systemic problems going to the heart of proper constitutional responsibilities of the President and the Executive Branch of government.

The times in which we now find ourselves -- with an Administration operating in secrecy, vastly expanding government power at every opportunity, and which is spending the country into the poor house -- call for equally aggressive oversight.

The purchase of 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition is far from the only question the Obama administration is refusing to answer. We still have no clear idea on the events that led to the assassination of a U.S. ambassador (and the deaths of three other Americans) during the September 11, 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Nor do we know details about the President’s pet drone program; and, let’s not forget about “Operation Fast and Furious.”

With transparency like this, it’s no surprise administration officials have become targets of hacking from rogue Internet activists like Anonymous and WikiLeaks. Just as the rise of black markets follow a breakdown of free trade that force economies underground, so does the breakdown of transparency in the federal government lead to a “black market” demand for information; now apparently being met by these illegal hacking attacks. Clearly, such attacks should be neither condoned nor ignored. However, the attacks are a warning sign to members of Congress that the public is not satisfied with their heretofore feeble attempts to hold the Executive Branch accountable.

It is high time for some congressional oversight backbone.