|Not long ago, I found myself thinking
about my grandfather, and it struck me that the federal government of his
day had very little impact on the way he lived, did business or carried
on his affairs. Washington was a remote place, in charge of delivering
the mail, keeping an army, printing money and perhaps granting homestead
patents. What the government did meant little to him -- because it didn't
do very much.
If you had asked a cab driver or bartender back
then to name the five most powerful men in Washington, chances are that
Calvin Coolidge wouldn't even have been mentioned. (With luck, he might
have ranked fifth.) The Speaker of the House would have been first.
Things today are far different.
Obscure legislation can put you out of business,
add to the cost of a new car, affect the clothing you wear on some jobs,
and when a Shah in a country called Iran loses his job, it may mean you
and I can't get to work because our neighborhood service station is suddenly
low on gas.
The Speaker of the House, once the most powerful
of Washington men, no longer can promise Presidents this or that package
of legislation. And Calvin Coolidge would be truly astonished to see today's
President -- not only the most powerful man in Washington, but the most
powerful man on Earth.
What we have is a government dramatically altered
by events: the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the Cold War, the
explosion of air travel, computers, centralized energy, and a doubling
and then a tripling of our population.
The Depression would never again allow the Congress
to worry only about delivering the mail and homestead patents. Because
chaos had been precipitated by a stock market crash. Congress moved to
regulate it. When banks collapsed, Congress provided loans for home ownership.
Government had involved itself in social ills, and the pace was destined
A far cry from my grandfather's day.
Out of chaos had come a new pace and a new role
for government. No longer would it be the passive observer; from this point
forward, it would be the active leader.
* * *
But Congress began to express alarm at the growth
of Presidential power, and at the legislation that it had churned out for
the past 15 years, first to combat a Depression, and later, a global conflict.
That alarm eventually became the Legislative Reorganization
Act of 1946, the first formal recognition of a new concept for our national
lawmakers. Today, the concept is
|known simply as "oversight", a mechanism
that allows us to check what has gone on before. Now, there are good and
healthy signs that it has found both new interest and new believers.
The reason for this new interest? We are entering
an austere budget year. President Carter wants to hold the federal deficit
at $29 billion (or less), and there will be far fewer adventurous new programs.
Instead, a good share of the work of this Congress
can be expected to shift to the oversight committees in both the House
and the Senate -- committees that are there to serve as watchdogs on one
or another government functions, agencies or departments. One might deal
with intelligence operations, another with government operations generally,
another military affairs, and so on.
I see this as a good sign. We need to get to the
work of reviewing much of what has gone on before, and we should put our
old programs to some new tests:
||Has the intent of legislation been carried
out -- or badly distorted?
||Is money appropriated by Congress for essential
programs being wisely spent -- or wasted?
||Are agencies that were created for a specific
function really performing -- or are they just snowing us?
||Are the taxpayers getting the most for their
I'm looking forward to all this new attention
to oversight. It's a mechanism I feel more than a little familiar with,
and one that needs all the help it can get.
Last year, I was proud to have sponsored one of
the biggest congressional oversight workshops ever held in Washington.
Working with the Congressional Research Service,
an arm of the Library of Congress, we put together a program that drew
a huge crowd. Virtually every House committee, and some in the Senate,
was represented. An important product of that meeting: Congress is now
at work on a manual on congressional oversight. I'm proud to have played
a part in that.
I wasn't alone in my pleasure -- House Minority
Leader John Rhodes showed up at the meeting to give his hearty endorsement.
* * *
Oversight is not new to the House Interior Affairs
Committee, which I head, and where we have broken some new ground:
||The Interior Committee became the first to meet
with officials of the department it oversees (Interior),