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Editorial: Overburdened by oversight

Oversight is one of Congress’ most important functions. When there is a major blunder ó the federal regulatory lapses that led to the BP oil spell being a good example ó it can often be traced to a lack of congressional oversight. At its most basic level, oversight insures that federal agencies are doing their jobs efficiently and well.
However there is such a thing as too much oversight where the agency, instead of doing its job, is tied up responding to congressional inquiries. The Associated Press has found an especially disturbing example in Congressí oversight of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
The Associated Press says that DHS, stitched together in haste out of 22 other agencies after 9/11, answers to 108 congressional committees, subcommittees and caucuses.
Thus, according to the AP, ěOfficials and staff spent about 66 work years responding to questions form Congress in 2009 alone. That same year, Homeland Security officials say they answered 11,680 letters, gave 2,058 briefings and sent 232 witnesses to 166 hearings. All this at a cost to taxpayers of about $10 million.î
Since DHS has asked for $57 billion in total funding for this next fiscal year, $10 million is not a great deal of money to insure that those funds are well spent. The bigger problem is the drain on the time of top agency officials. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has complained that the departmentís officials and staff were spending more time responding to congressional requests than carrying out their responsibilities.
This is not a new problem. Napolitanoís Republican predecessor, Michael Chertoff, had the same complaint. And itís not as if individual lawmakers don’t realize the gravity of the problem. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the AP about the welter of committees and subcommittees seeking a piece of DHS, ěThereís no good reason. Itís absolutely disgraceful.î
Unfortunately, there is a near-insuperable obstacle to an orderly and effective oversight ó Congress itself.
The committees and subcommittees, and particularly their chairmen and staffs, are enormously protective of their turf and jealous of their prerogatives. No one will cede authority until someone else does and no one else will.
It really is classic Washington.
ó Scripps Howard News Service

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