Congress has punted on doing the kind of scrutiny of federal agencies that's required to prevent waste and keep the government running smoothly, according to a new report by Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who serves as the institution's unofficial watchdog.
Mr. Coburn said the drop in oversight comes even as Congress is contemplating significant cuts to the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress and is the one agency that's kept up its pace of scrutiny.
"Long-term trends show a sharp decline in congressional oversight," Mr Coburn said. "The problem, however, has not been a lack of funds to get it done. Over the last decade, the House and Senate budgets have nearly doubled in size and increased to a level that is more than $1 billion higher."
But, he added, "despite this growth, everything from hearings to amendments to votes is decreasing, and with it oversight is in decline."
His report found that Congress held 318 fewer hearings during the last two-year period, from 2009-2010, than it did in the previous Congress. The drop was powered by a marked decline in the House, where even the critical Oversight and Government Reform Committee held 59 fewer hearings than the previous Congress.
The Senate fared better, with about half of the committees meeting or exceeding their totals from the previous Congress, but Mr. Coburn said at least one Senate committee never held a hearing the entire time the last Congress was in session.
The data ran through the end of the last Congress, which means it doesn't include 2011. Republicans, who took control of the House in the 2010 midterm election, have held a number of high-profile hearings to conduct oversight of the administration, including its energy loan programs and the discredited "Operation Fast and Furious" gun-running program.
Mr. Coburn contrasted Congress's higher spending and shrinking oversight with the GAO, which has seen its budget and staffing cut and has seen the number of reports it can issue also decline, from more than 1,800 in 2000 down to fewer than 900 in the last fiscal year.
The report comes even as the Senate Appropriations Committee has called for cuts to the GAO, which is a branch of the legislature and is funded out of Congress's accounts. The appropriators say that all legislative offices are seeing cuts in the ongoing belt-tightening, and said the watchdog agency can't be excluded.
"With our economy still in trouble and spending in Washington still much too high, Congress needs to lead by example and cut its own budget," Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who chairs the spending subcommittee that called for the cuts, said in September when he introduced the legislative spending bill.
House appropriators also called for cuts to the GAO, though only about half the size of the reductions the Senate is contemplating.
The GAO's reports are often used to highlight government waste and inefficiency. For example, a GAO report earlier this year identified billions of dollars the government spends funding multiple programs to do essentially the same thing. Another report found 30 federal programs particularly susceptible to fraud and abuse.
Since that report, Mr. Coburn has twice offered an amendment to try to recapture some of that money, including most recently as a way to offset increased disaster aid spending. That amendment gained 54 votes, leaving it six shy of the 60 needed to be adopted in the Senate.
In one interesting turn, Mr. Coburn's new report cites data collected by political scientists supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation looking at the pace of congressional hearings. Two years ago, Mr. Coburn offered an amendment to try to eliminate NSF's funding for political science research.
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