To date, the Obama administration has faced relatively little congressional oversight. During the past two years, the House Oversight and Government Reform panel has held 197 oversight hearings. But that will change now that Republicans have control. Incoming oversight committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California plans 280 hearings this year alone – and counting.
With the White House and the Democrat-controlled Senate still able to stymie GOP legislation coming from the House, investigations might be one of the most potent ways for House Republicans to leave their mark on this Congress. Committee chairs have broad powers to investigate – and Republican leaders are encouraging them to do so.
New probes will emerge from many committees and on a range of topics, from the actions of the Federal Reserve during the financial meltdown to enforcement of illegal-immigrant laws to how the administration is implementing sweeping health-care and financial reforms passed by Democrats last year.
But ground zero is the House oversight committee, a panel with an unusually free hand to pick targets to investigate. Chairman Issa – who famously referred to President Obama as "the most corrupt president in modern times" – calls himself "the House GOP's chief watchdog." But he plays down the firebrand image. There will be no witch hunts, he says.
He, like other committee chairs, is under a mandate from GOP leaders to relate all that they do to the No. 1 issue on the minds of Americans: creating jobs.
"We are going to focus on jobs and the economy," Issa says.
Among the expected investigations:
•Issa is preparing investigations on issues ranging from WikiLeaks and alleged corruption in Afghanistan to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and food safety. He also plans to ask why the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission failed to meet a congressional mandate to explain causes of the financial crisis. The panel, dogged by partisan rifts and staff changes, has delayed release of its final report until the end of January.
"With 26 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, the discussion has to turn to the 7 million illegal workers in this country," he says.
Work-site enforcement by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dropped by 70 percent in the past two years, he adds. "We should put the interest of American workers ahead of illegal workers and clearly signal that."
•Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, plans a controversial hearing this spring on the "radicalism" of US Muslims and the terrorist threat. Critics caution that the hearings could turn anti-Muslim.
•Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, a moderate and chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, says his top priority will be "repealing the job-killing ObamaCare." In addition to probing the implementation of health-care reform, his panel will be investigating how the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to regulate climate change.
•Rep. Spencer Bachus (R) of Alabama aims to use his gavel on the Financial Services Committee to grill administration officials on bailouts and the new consumer protection agency. He is interested in dismantling parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill or defunding its implementation, and challenging the appointment of Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who was appointed by Mr. Obama during a recess to be a special adviser to the Treasury secretary. The appointment avoided a controversial Senate confirmation.
•Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas is chairing one of the most closely watched panels: the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy Committee. The subcommittee is charged with investigating the Federal Reserve, an institution that Representative Paul has proposed eliminating. At the very least, Paul wants to audit the Fed to learn more about how much access foreign lenders had to the Fed's emergency credit during the financial crisis.
Issa is bullish about the investigations. He suggests that probes into waste and fraud in Medicare, federal stimulus funds, and bailout programs could net the federal government $200 billion.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are moving to counter Issa. They replaced the oversight panel's former chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) of New York, with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, a seasoned investigator with a record of working across party lines. Representative Cummings says he is committed to making the process fair and avoiding the oversight frenzy of the Clinton presidency.
But he is also taking the fight to Issa, who last month invited business groups to tell the panel which federal regulations were obstructing job creation. Cummings told MSNBC on Jan. 4 that the letters amount to an invitation for businesses to "tell us what they want us to do, as opposed to protecting the American people."
Business groups are responding, saying they are concerned about the way that federal agencies – particularly the EPA – are interpreting and implementing federal laws. But Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, says he does not want headlinemaking hearings that score political points, but rather effective investigations.
"They can hold hearings from now until the cows come home, but the real issue is how they conduct those hearings: There's a smart way to hold them, then there is the witch hunt," he says. "If it's not done correctly, you don't get much done."
Congress doesn't investigate only when the party in the White House is different from the majority party in the House or Senate. Then-Sen. Harry Truman (D) of Missouri caught the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt and the nation with a flawless investigation of defense contracting amid World War II.
Truman told the Senate: "The power of investigation is one of the most important powers of Congress. The manner in which the power is exercised will largely determine the power and prestige of the Congress in the future."
By that measure, recent Congresses have performed poorly, say experts. "In the last 20 years, the investigative process has been used largely to score political points," says Raymond Smock, a former House historian and director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.
Congressional investigations are most effective when they are used to produce good legislation – not just daily revelations for the press. Putting a president "on the hot seat" is not necessarily partisan politics. "If wrongdoing or fraud has occurred, it's Congress's responsibility to look into this," says Mr. Smock, who is editing a series on congressional investigations.
Good investigation "is a slow laborious process, best conducted in the investigative phase out of the public eye," he adds. "You have to see how investigations are conducted and whether they lead to fruitful legislation or simply degenerate into partisan name-calling."