It’s Time for Congress’ New Members to Use Their Long-Forgotten Oversight Powers ( )

The dozens of newly elected Congressional Democrats sworn in last week are getting a lot of much-deserved attention. They are a diverse group who represent a wide variety of districts, but they are united by a common dilemma—how can junior members of a party that lacks control of the U.S. Senate or presidency make their mark with legislation?

Barring miracles, the sad fact is that over the next two years, they cannot.

True, Democrats will try to use so-called “must pass” legislation, like spending bills to keep the government open and reauthorizations of expiring popular laws, as a vehicle to do some good. But even advancing “must pass” bills is easier said than done. Just look to the current partial shutdown of the federal government with no end in sight for proof.

So are new members irrelevant? Are they just votes to prevent unchecked Republican rule? In other words, are the inspiring new members of the Democratic caucus to be consigned to insignificance?

That would be terrible, but it needn’t happen. There is something new members can do to demonstrate to their constituents, key activists, small-dollar donors, and in-district press that they are living up to their promises.

In a word: oversight.

“Oversight” sounds wonky—like the type of thing that leads politicians nowhere fast. And yet oversight can lead you to the presidency. It is no exaggeration to say that Harry Truman went from obscurity to the vice presidency (and then later the presidency) because of his superlative oversight work uncovering profiteering by military contractors in World War II. In reflecting on his work, Truman observed that “the power of investigation is one of the most important powers of Congress.