The word for the new Congress: Oversight

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U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa speaks to the media during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

It’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot in the new Congress - oversight. Members from several committees, and both political parties, say it’s the top priority in the new year.

The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is Temecula Republican Congressman Darrell Issa. Speaking Sunday on CNN, Issa called the Obama Administration “one of the most corrupt” for the way it’s handing out federal bailout money. Issa later conceded that Congress approved the money without many guidelines and gave it first to the Bush Administration.

“Corrupt” is an overstatement – but Issa says it is time to see if federal government is wasting taxpayer money. "The focus of our committee has always been – and you look at all the work I’ve done over the last four years on the Oversight Committee – it has been consistently about looking for waste, fraud and abuse." Issa promises hearings on everything from Medicare fraud to food safety.

But the Oversight Committee isn’t the only place you’ll hear that word. Republican Congressman Dan Lungren of Folsom is the new chairman of the House Administration Committee. He says, "I hope that we emphasize the importance of oversight."

Lungren’s committee is rarely in the spotlight – but that could change this session. "We have the obligation to oversee the federal establishment, meaning executive branch." Lungren says that means ensuring that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Justice Department are carrying out the laws passed by Congress.

The new chairman also wants each agency to list its priorities to help Congress shrink the federal budget. "When you have to make the tough decision on cutting, you would already have established what the priorities are."

Mark Sandelow says you see this "every time a party controls the White House that’s not in power in Congress."

Sandelow is a political scientist at the University of California’s D.C. center. He says during the Clinton Administration, "as soon as Republicans took over, there were investigations into everything from Bill Clinton’s financial dealings to whether or not he was abusing his Christmas card list."

But Sandelow says once Democrats took back the House in 2006, there were fewer investigations and hearings. "Probably not because they’re so angelic, but because it was the final two years of Bush’s term. And Pelosi decided she just didn’t want to waste their time on investigations into a president who’s at the end of his time."

This time, it’s not just Republicans who want to investigate federal agencies. San Mateo Democrat Jackie Speier also sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Speier says, "There’s a bureaucracy that’s separate and distinct from the administration. And I have no interest in defending a bureaucracy. I have an interest in defending the taxpayers."

Speier wants the committee to look at waste in the federal workers comp system – and to find the fat in defense contracting. And speaking of defense spending, the “O” word is also being bandied about at the House Armed Services Committee where the new chair Buck McKeon says, "We will be putting more emphasis on oversight."

The Republican congressman of Santa Clarita says the secretary of defense has asked departments to find $100 billion in savings over the next five years – and has promised they can keep the money for more important things. "I’m totally supportive of the first part," McKeon says. "I’m real concerned about what happens afterwards."

McKeon wants to spend the savings on replacing equipment that got, as he puts it, “chewed up” during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

UCDC political scientist Mark Sandelow says for all the hearings and investigations, the real power for congressional oversight is exactly where Congressman McKeon says it is: in its purse. In the end, it’s Capitol Hill that determines the budget for the federal government.

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