Grassley Q&A: Why good government requires oversight

US Capitol 3By Chuck Grassley
United States Senator


Q: Why is oversight such a key piece of good government?

A: Throughout the last century, the federal government has grown dramatically in size and scope.  In addition to providing for the military and veterans on behalf of the American people, the federal government increasingly is called upon to respond to public and animal health crises, natural disasters, financial fall-outs and 21st century threats to national security, such as terrorism and cybercrimes.

Whether we like it or not, the federal government now reaches broadly into the social fabric of American society. From health care to highways, housing, banking, agriculture, trade, immigration, criminal justice and more, Uncle Sam has fingerprints just about everywhere, especially when it comes to collecting taxes. From the original three federal departments of State, Treasury and War (Defense), the executive branch today has 15 cabinets that house thousands of agencies, departments and bureaus, employing millions of officials. And each is assigned various missions to implement public policy and programs, such as food, drug and transportation safety, border security, medical research, national intelligence and law enforcement.

Just as the founders debated the merits of centralized government and the separation of powers, today’s political leaders and the American electorate continue this important dialogue in our 239-year journey of self-governance. Those of us who agree limited government best advances opportunity and prosperity in a free society are careful to scrutinize government overreach. As the scope of the federal government grows, it arguably exceeds delegated authority within the vast, sprawling bureaucracy. There are so many federal agencies, with overlapping jurisdictions that too often lead to bureaucratic turf battles, mismanagement and a lack of accountability.

Theoretically, they all report to the President, but one elected official cannot possibly know and address all the problems that can arise. And in many cases, the executive branch doesn’t want the light of day shining on its spending and management decisions. That’s why congressional oversight serves a critical function in our system of checks and balances. It gives lawmakers a fundamental tool to root out waste, fraud and abuse; to ensure the executive branch is faithfully executing the laws according to congressional intent; and, to expose and fix ineffective or inefficient administration of the nation’s laws.


Q: Does oversight really make a difference?

A:  Some may consider the job a Sisyphean task. Just consider the patient safety scandal that erupted last year at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. Despite the resignation by the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs and billions of dollars approved by Congress to address systemic flaws, it appears a culture of mismanagement continues to undermine patient care at the VA hospital in Phoenix, especially for at-risk veterans seeking mental health treatment.

As a long-time champion for whistleblowers, I take a conscientious approach to listen to as many people as possible who come forward to report wrongdoing. So when credible reports come to my attention that the government makes a mistake, misspends money, fails to faithfully execute the law or adequately provide public services, I use my constitutional oversight authority to try to find out exactly what happened and seek accountability to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It takes a relentless approach to track down the truth in a hierarchical bureaucracy. The Department of Justice still hasn’t come completely clean on the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking scandal. Other departments also have tarnished track records for stonewalling. The State Department is dragging its feet on Freedom of Information Act requests. Others, such as the Department of Defense, require steadfast vigilance to keep tabs on financial payment processes long riddled with mismanagement and abuse.

Oversight is an uphill climb. At times, there seems to be more boulders rolling back than shoulders to carry the burden. And yet, it’s an integral piece of our system of checks and balances. Considering trillions of tax dollars are at stake, public safety is on the line and vulnerable veterans are at risk for unacceptable treatment delays, anything less than robust congressional oversight is simply not good enough.

The American people elect lawmakers to serve the public’s interests in our system of self-government. It’s an oath of office I take very seriously. That’s why I strongly support whistleblower protections and keep tabs on independent watchdogs known as Inspectors General within the federal agencies. Some agencies would like to see the work of Inspectors General swept under the rug, especially when the audits are embarrassing, as has been the case at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service. Others appear to try to circumvent internal investigations by eating into the IG’s budget, such as recent moves by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Keeping a tight leash on the federal bureaucracy tasked with carrying out public services is necessary to uphold the public trust.