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It’s impossible to know right now what impact the work of the Jan. 6 committee will have in the long run, though it’s a fair bet that whatever the political and legal repercussions, there will be legislation coming.
In pulling back the curtain on that day, the days leading up to it, and the days that followed, the committee has offered Americans a clear-eyed look at the misbehavior of high-ranking government officials all the way up to the president.
The committee’s work is a dramatic reminder of why congressional oversight matters.
Yet it’s every bit as important as passing legislation. This is because making government work well is extremely difficult, even when officials are trying to do so. Even accomplished office-holders and civil servants struggle to ensure that their agencies and programs are working efficiently, effectively, and in line with what Congress intended. And when they don’t, we read about government mistakes and missteps, and action or lack of action.
That’s Congress’s job: to look into every nook and cranny of the executive branch, to call attention to it, debate it, and, if necessary, to legislate improvements.
I’m not suggesting Congress should directly be involved in the management of federal programs. Far from it. But Congress does have the responsibility to hold the president and his administration accountable for their actions, to ensure that the government is functioning properly and our laws are working as intended—or can be adjusted if they’re not— and that taxpayer dollars are being used effectively.
And this applies no matter who’s in power. In the end it’s not about politics, it’s about seeing that the federal government is serving the American people’s interests.
Congress has plenty of tools to do this. There’s a cost to all of this, of course, so Congress has to make sure that the oversight is adequately funded. This means not just money to fund the work, but the expertise to pursue it.
Government and the issues it addresses are complicated. Congress needs access to experts in every field it gets into—to counter and add to what the executive branch says, to critique and analyze policies, and to praise good work when it happens. Washington is filled with people like that, who know their fields, are nonpartisan, and just want government to work properly.
At its best, as the Jan. 6 committee is demonstrating, effective oversight is essential to the functioning of our democracy.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.