Portraits in Oversight
Want to know what is meant by the term “oversight”? To help explain, here are some short portraits of important congressional oversight investigations as well as some key past figures in oversight. Join us for a quick history walk!
Senator Carl Levin
Carl Levin, inspiration for the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy, was a champion of fact-based, bipartisan, high-quality oversight investigations by Congress. His inquiries spanned a wide array of subjects including government mismanagement, money laundering, offshore tax abuse, corporate misconduct, torture of detainees, military effectiveness, and more, producing not only meaningful hearings and reports but also new laws to address identified problems. His motto: “Good government requires good oversight.”
Congress’ First Investigation:
Gen St. Clair’s Defeat
The very first oversight investigation undertaken by the U.S. Congress occurred in 1792, just three years after the U.S. Constitution took effect. The inquiry delved into a significant U.S. military defeat, while also setting important precedents for future congressional oversight investigations.
on the Conduct of the Civil War
During the Civil War, from December 1861 to May 1865, the U.S. Congress convened a special joint investigative committee to inquire “into the whole conduct of the war.” Led by Republicans but with bipartisan support, the committee spent nearly four years compiling evidence, holding hearings, issuing reports, and demanding reforms.
KKK Violence During Reconstruction
During the 1870s, in a period now known as Reconstruction, Congress launched two extensive investigations into a frightening new organization, the Ku Klux Klan, exposed its role in escalating racial violence in the South, and supported legislative and administrative actions to curb its brutality and lawlessness.
Thomas Walsh and the Teapot Dome Investigation
Thomas Walsh represented the state of Montana in the U.S. Senate from 1913 to 1933. During his tenure, he played a critical role in one of the most important Senate investigations into federal bribery, corruption, and a failure to prosecute, as well as the right of Congress to investigate and expose wrongdoing.
Ferdinand Pecora and the 1929 Stock Market Crash
Congressional members of both parties spent the years following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression attempting to investigate the causes of the financial devastation, with little success until the advent of the Pecora Investigation.
Harry Truman and the Investigation of Waste, Fraud, & Abuse in World War II
Harry S. Truman, though best known as the 33rd President of the United States, gained initial prominence in national politics as a Missouri senator from 1935 to 1945. His fame arose from his oversight efforts related to World War II.
Joe McCarthy’s Oversight Abuses
Focusing on Cold War fears of communism and subversion, Senator McCarthy became infamous for abusing his congressional oversight powers and riding roughshod over individuals’ dignity and constitutional rights.
Abraham Ribicoff and the Traffic Safety Hearings
Abraham Ribicoff led a Senate oversight investigation that not only fundamentally changed how the federal government handled motor vehicle safety problems, but also helped save millions of lives.
The Watergate Hearings
The Senate investigation into the Watergate scandal is one of the best-known examples of congressional oversight. It is a story of how Members of Congress, despite differing parties, opinions, and political ambitions, ultimately came together at a time of crisis in the best interests of the country.
Frank Church and the Church Committee
Frank Church led one of the most important oversight investigations ever undertaken by Congress into covert operations by the U.S. intelligence community. His work began on January 27, 1975, when the Senate voted 82-to-4 to form the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities; it would come to be called the Church Committee, after its chair.
Rep. John Dingell, Jr.
John D. Dingell, Jr. holds the record as the longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives with more than 59 consecutive years of service representing southeast Michigan. He also chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, holding hard-hitting investigations that spurred important legislative reforms.
The Iran-Contra Affair
In the summer of 1987, televised congressional hearings exposing the Iran-Contra scandal gripped the nation, disclosing dramatic facts involving terrorists, American hostages, weapons sales, taxpayer dollars, and covert operations, as well as an ongoing struggle between the executive and legislative branches over who controls U.S. foreign policy and intelligence activities.
Senator Tom Coburn
Dr. Tom Coburn was an Oklahoma family physician and obstetrician who served the Sooner State in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001 and the Senate from 2005 to 2015. Earning the nickname “Dr. No” for introducing at least 1,000 amendments opposing government spending, he also published more than 50 oversight reports during his decade in the Senate.
Congress and the Enron Scandal
On December 2, 2001, despite claiming assets in excess of $60 billion and revenues exceeding $100 billion, Enron Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, becoming the then-largest bankrupt corporation in U.S. history. The resulting economic dislocation sparked one of most extensive bipartisan, bicameral oversight efforts by Congress in years, eventually leading to landmark legislation.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings
For 23 years, Elijah E. Cummings, the son of sharecroppers, represented Maryland’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected in 1996, he served on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform from his earliest days in Congress until his death in 2019, becoming its Ranking Minority Member in December 2010 and Committee Chair in his last year.