We are in that season every two years in which a new Congress elects its leadership, organizes its committees, and sets its priorities. While this planning and oversight process is often characterized by the perfunctory feel of mandated reporting, one can glean valuable information about committees’ recent activity and upcoming priorities. Here’s a quick look at that process for the 114th Congress.

The Formal Oversight Reporting and Planning Process

Every other year, after a federal election cycle, both the Senate and House of Representatives engage in a formal oversight reporting process. In addition, the House of Representatives engages in a formal oversight planning process. Notwithstanding its firm historical and legal grounding, Congress’s oversight function was not recognized in public law until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 required House and Senate committees to exercise “continuous watchfulness” over the programs and executive or judicial entities within their jurisdiction. 

Committee Reports on Oversight Activities in 2013-2014

The 1970 amendments to the Act imposed a requirement that most committees issue a biennial oversight report to their parent chamber regarding oversight activities during the previous two-year period. This year, Senate committees must report of their oversight activities by March 31 (Senate Rule XXVI, cl. 8).

The House, as a noncontinuous body, has a January 2 deadline in the year it expires following an election (House Rule XI, cl. 1(d)). You can review all the submitted House committee reports of 113th Congress. And, for ease of reference for Just Security readers, here are links to the:

Each of these reports contains a lengthy section on oversight activities. For example, the report filed by HASC lists listing Defense Policy, the War in Afghanistan, Global Counter-Terrorism, Emerging Threats, Detainee Policy, Intelligence, National Guard and Reserves, Benghazi, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and various regions and continents as areas of oversight activity. Each narrative groups the hearings, investigations, findings, and site visits related to that subject matter. These reports have quite a bit more information grouped by subject matter about committee activities than the websites.

Oversight Planning in the House

House committees have an additional obligation to plan for oversight activities in the new Congress. House Rule X, cls. 2 and 3 require submission of oversight plans to HOGR and the House Rules Committee by Feb. 15 and, after consultation, HOGR shall report to the whole House with any recommendations it, or leadership, have for effective coordination of the plans by March 31.

Several committees have already released their plans (see here, here, and here), including, for our purposes, HASC. Unsurprisingly, given the continuity in leadership, HASC’s oversight priorities for this Congress look very similar to those contained in its report from the prior Congress.

Unfortunately, the Senate does not appear to have a formal planning process at the full committee level, although it does require its subcommittees to engage in some planning as part of its legislative branch budget justifications before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

Process Changes and Authority Extensions

The House augmented extended a few of its oversight authorities. The House re-adopted the Rules of 113th Congress except as amended by H. Res. 5. The House Rules Committee’s section-by-section analysis of H. Res. 5 provides insight into the changes affecting the oversight function. Here are a few provisions of note:

  • Witness Disclosure of Foreign Income. Congress imposed a new obligation on witnesses before it to disclose payments originating from, or contracts with, foreign governments during the preceding two years. (Section 2, Changes to Standing Rules, Subsection (a)(1)).
  • Broadened Deposition Authority. Congress broadened its deposition authority and bandwidth by granting a number of committees the ability to have staff-conducted depositions rather than requiring a Member to attend. Specifically, Subsection (b) provides the Committees on Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Science, Space, and Technology, and Ways and Means deposition authority to be conducted by a member or committee counsel during the first session of the 114th Congress. (Section 3, Separate Orders, Subsection (b)). The ability to proceed without Member-involvement will vastly increase these committees’ functional ability and bandwidth to conduct depositions; although I note that not much national security oversight jurisdiction is implicated.
  • “Fast and Furious” Litigation Reauthorization. (Continuing Litigation Authorities) authorizes the House Office of General Counsel to “continue litigation to enforce a subpoena against the Attorney General in the ‘Fast and Furious’ investigation.” (Section 3, Continuing Litigation Authorities, Subsection (f)). My previous posts on the potential constitutional significance of that litigation can be found here and here.
  • Benghazi Committee Reauthorization. Congress extended the charter of the Benghazi Committee as it existed at the end of the 113th Congress. (Section 4, Committees, Commissions, and House Offices, Subsection (a)).

In sum, there will be a lot of formal information published over the next two months about prior oversight activity and future plans. March 31 will provide an opportunity to assess the prior two years of Senate activity. As for House committee plans, Feb. 15 will be a moment to take stock of the committee priorities before they are shaped by events on the ground and shifting political and policy contexts. March 31 will provide an opportunity to see whether there are any changes made to those plans following HOGR and Leadership review. If so, that would be pretty good evidence that there has been turf jockeying amongst committees with jurisdictional claims.