Congressional oversight is activities by the United States Congress to review, monitor and supervise the Executive Branch, including the numerous U.S. federal agencies. Congress uses its committee system and the Government Accountability Office to perform this work. Congressional oversight, which dates to the earliest days of the Republic, is achieved in a wide variety of activities and contexts, including authorization, appropriations, investigative, and legislative hearings by standing committees; specialized investigations by select committees; and reviews and studies by congressional support agencies and staff.
There is no express provision in the Constitution authorizing the Congress to oversee the Executive Branch. Instead, Congress' oversight power derives from its “implied” powers in the Constitution, public laws, and House and Senate rules.
The philosophical underpinning for oversight is the Constitution’s system of checks and balances among the legislature, executive, and judiciary. James Madison, described the system in Federalist No. 51 as establishing “subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner that each may be a check on the other”.
There are limits on the effectiveness of Congressional oversight:
- Much of the intelligence budget is classified and subject to only superficial Congressional review.
- For the past decade, Congress authorizes spending at the last minute under threat of a government shutdown, undercutting the normal oversight by appropriation committees. Continuing resolutions keep spending at prior level without Congress considering the cutting of ineffective programs.
- The President and his staff can assert "Executive Privilege" and refuse to answer the questions of Congress.
- When Dick Cheney was Vice President, he asserted that his office was a part of the legislative branch and not the executive branch.
- When Congress and the White House are controlled by the same political party, there is little incentive to investigate the executive branch and to hold oversight hearings.
- Kaiser FM. (2001). Congressional Oversight. CRS Report for Congress 97-936, 2001 Updated 2012 version: Halchin LE. (2012). Congressional Oversight.
- "Cheney, Enron, and the Constitution", Time, February 2, 2002. Retrieved on June 17, 2017.
- Meyer, Josh. "Cheney's executive decision", Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2007. Retrieved on June 17, 2017.