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Congressional oversight

Ezra Klein has a nice chart up showing how, since the 80s, the number of hearings in Congress has steadily declined. Ezra interprets this as a decline in Congressional oversight of federal agencies.

The political science research that I'm familiar with says that Congress generally takes a non-aggressive approach to oversight. Attention is called to an agency and a hearing is called when something grabs their attention, such as a big mistake or a scandal. So we might assume, like Ezra does, that because Congress isn't calling as many hearings they aren't overseeing agencies as much as they should be.

Given the conservatives in charge during big chunks of this period, I think that's probably correct. But I'm not sure simply the number of committee hearings shows that point. I want to point out other political science research regarding the nature of committee hearings in Congress. The data shows that most hearings feature people who agree with the majority party that makes up the committee. So if most hearings are telling a majority party what they already agree with, is this really a form of Congressional oversight?

In instances like the gulf oil spill or the solar panel company that recently went bankrupt, I think its safe to say that hearings are a form of Congressional oversight. But I think its less the case that other types of hearings really qualify as oversight, or at least the most effective way to provide oversight. And I think the drop in the number of hearings could be due to reasons other than lack of oversight.

With advanced communications, it could be possible that hearings are not as necessary in order for interest groups to provide Congress with information and for Congress to know what kind of policies interest groups want. So those types of hearings could be in decline because they just aren't as necessary. In order to find out if that is the case someone would have to sort out the nature of the hearings and label them according to whether they were for oversight purposes or others. Then I think we could get a more clear answer as to whether Congress was engaging in less oversight.