Congressional Oversight

Congressional oversight describes the function that the legislative branch performs when it oversees, or watches over, the actions of the executive branch, particularly its agencies and bureaus. Congressional oversight over the executive branch and its agencies serves both practical purposes and democratic principles. The theoretical underpinnings for congressional oversight are found in the Constitution's system of checks and balances. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison reflected on human nature and assumed those serving in office would be ambitious, and thus the structure of the government needed to be designed so that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition [and] the interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” As he notes in Federalist No. 48, the Constitution should, therefore, “provide some practical security for the branches, against the invasion of the others.” Other philosophers relevant to America's politica development also reflected on the need for oversight. John Stuart Mill, the British utilitarian philosopher, argued that oversight was essential in a healthy representative democracy: “The proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government” ( Mill 1861, 104 ). And in Congressional Government, Woodrow Wilson equated oversight with lawmaking as the essential function of the legislature. He argued, “Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of the administration” ( Wilson 1885, 297 ).


Congress's ability to check the power of the executive branch derives from both the Constitution and statutory law. Although the Constitution does not specifically grant authority to oversee or investigate the executive or program administration, it is implied in Congress's list of enumerated powers in Article I of the Constitution. Indeed the Founders intended that the legislative branch be the most active policy-making branch, as reflected in the fact the Constitution is more detailed in its description of the powers and responsibilities of Congress than it is regarding the executive and judicial branches; the Framers saw that Congress would be the more powerful lawmaking body and thus had to be limited by a more detailed list of specific powers more so than the other branches

Article I grants Congress the authority to do many things, such as appropriate funds, raise and support armies, declare war, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, advise and consent on treaties and presidential nominations, and impeach and try the president. Article I reinforces Congress's broad authority with the necessary and proper clause, which states that Congress shall have the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into the execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” Congress could not carry out these powers effectively without overseeing executive actions relevant to how programs are being administered, at what cost, and whether or not executive agents are obeying the law and complying with legislative intent.

Time and experience have demonstrated the practical purposes and objectives met by oversight. As presidential power has increased, Congress has found ways to counterbalance executive power, and to assert its constitutional rights and interests ( Taylor 2013, 178 ). In the post–World War II period, congressional oversight has taken several forms and serves several functions. Oversight serves to ensure the executive branch is implementing the laws according to what members consider “legislative intent,” the determination of which is no simple matter.


Congressional committees are a primary institutional vehicle for carrying out the oversight function. Oversight committees are nonlegislative and can be either temporary select committees or permanent standing committees within the Congress. These committees evaluate agency programs and performance, which allow them to detect and prevent poor administration, waste and abuse of the system, and unconstitutional or discriminatory behavior. Some of the more well-known select committee investigations include Watergate from 1973 to 1974 and the Iran-Contra affair in 1987. But these types of investigations date to 1792, when a House committee investigated the defeat of an Army force by confederated Indian tribes. Examples of standing committee investigations include the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in 1998 in the House and the impeachment trial in the Senate in 1999. Congressional oversight committees also report their findings to the public, which allows the general public to evaluate whether or not the government policies are reflecting the public interest. This in turn serves Congressional reelection interests; when poor performance is reported, the public appeals to Congress for reparative legislative measures ( Fiorina 1989 ).

One of the most common forms of oversight is investigation. A well-known example is the Watergate scandal during the Nixon presidency ( 1969–1974 ). A June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters led to congressional investigations, which eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. In 2012, under Barack Obama's presidency ( 2009– ), the General Services Administration's head was forced to resign after congressional hearings revealed excessive and wasteful spending at the agency. As Andrew Taylor argues, “[I]f investigations indicate power, then the Congress of today is clearly not especially weak” ( Taylor 2013, 181 ).

Other forms of oversight include tools by which Congress is able to limit executive discretion in the implementation of policy after its original enactment. Congress passes sunset laws, which limit the length of time a law is operational; Congress also limits the amount of time that an agency can continue a law's execution without congressional reauthorization. They also use limitation riders, or provisions added to appropriations bills that prevent executive agencies from spending money for particular purposes. Congress also passes clarifying legislation, such as the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which included direction regarding President Ronald Reagan's administrative interpretation and implementation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Although these are better-known examples of congressional oversight, they reflect only a small portion of Congress's overall oversight effort ( Kaiser 2001 ). Congress monitors executive activity in more routine ways such as appropriation hearings on agency budgets and authorization hearings for existing programs. Furthermore, congressional staff, support agencies, and specifically created commissions and task forces regularly examine executive operations and the implementation of agency programs.

SEE ALSO Congress as a Governing Institution ; Congress in the Policy Process .


Fiorina, Morris P. Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Kaiser, Frederick M. “Congressional Oversight.” CRS Reports for Congress. Washington, DC: The Library of Congress, 2001.

Madison, James. Federalist No. 48. February 1, 1788. Yale University, Lillian Goldman Law Library. 2008. .

Madison, James. Federalist No. 51. February 1, 1788. Yale University, Lillian Goldman Law Library. 2008. .

Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government. London: Parker, Son, and Bourn, 1861.

Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington, DC: CQ, 2007.

Taylor, Andrew J. Congress: A Performance Appraisal. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2013.

Wilson, Woodrow. Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.

Amanda Ross Edwards
North Carolina State University