CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT MANUAL

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Updated January 16, 2020

Congressional Research Service

Selected Oversight Techniques, continued ...

Casework

Casework is a congressional activity that typically occurs in Members’ personal offices and includes the response or services provided to constituents who request assistance on a wide variety of matters.

These could include problems with various federal agencies and departments that could signal a need for further oversight.

Casework inquiries can be simple and include requests for assistance in applying for Social Security, veterans’, educational, or other benefits.

More complex inquiries might involve tracking misdirected benefits payments or efforts to obtain, or seek relief from, a federal administrative decision. 266

Casework inquiries and the efforts of congressional constituent services staff to respond can provide important micro-level insights into executive agency activities.

Together, constituent inquiries and agency responses may afford Members an early warning about whether an agency or program is functioning as Congress intended and which programs or policies might warrant additional institutional oversight or further legislative consideration. 267

266 CRS provides a variety of resources to assist congressional offices with casework. These include CRS Report RL33209, Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources, by R. Eric Petersen and Sarah J. Eckman; CRS In Focus IF10503, Constituent Services: Overview and Resources, by Sarah J. Eckman; and “Casework and Other Constituent Services,” available to congressional offices at http://www.crs.gov/resources/CASEWORK?source=search.

267 Larry P. Ortiz et al., “Legislative Casework: When Policy and Practice Intersect,” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, vol. 31 (June 2004), pp. 49-52; Representative Lee H. Hamilton, “Casework,” Congressional Record, vol. 142, (July 24, 1996), pp. 19015-19016; and John R. Johannes, “Casework as a Technique of U.S. Congressional Oversight of the Executive,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, vol. 4 (August 1979), pp. 325-351.

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Performance Audits

Performance auditing of executive departments is among the most frequently undertaken techniques of legislative oversight.

A performance audit is intended to help Congress (and other oversight entities) hold executive officers accountable for their use of public funds with a primary aim to facilitate improvement of various government programs and operations. 268

According to GAO, performance audits aim to accomplish four key objectives:

1. Program effectiveness and results.

Determine whether a program or activity is achieving its legislative, regulatory, or organizational goals and objectives, as well as whether resources are being used efficiently, effectively, and economically to achieve program results.

2. Internal control.

Determine whether an internal control system for a program or activity provides reasonable assurance of achieving efficient and effective operations, reliability of reporting, and compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

3. Compliance.

Determine whether a program or activity complies with criteria established by laws, regulations, contracts, grant agreements, or other requirements.

4. Prospective analysis.

Identify projected trends and impact of a program or activity and possible policy alternatives to address them. 269

Performance audits may be undertaken by external auditors (e.g., GAO or inspectors general) or internal auditors (e.g., agency audit teams or agency-hired consultants).

Internal auditors often work under the direction of their affiliated agency, and their reports may be designed to meet the needs of executive officials.

Regardless, internal audit reports might be useful in conducting legislative oversight. 270

GAO and other audit entities may consider several questions when assessing government programs and operations, such as the following:

 How successful is the program in accomplishing the intended results? Could program objectives be achieved at less cost?

 Has agency management clearly defined and promulgated the objectives and goals of the program or activity?

 Have performance standards been developed?

 Are program objectives sufficiently clear to permit agency management to accomplish effectively the desired program results? Are the objectives of the component parts of the program consistent with overall program objectives?

 Are program costs reasonably commensurate with the benefits achieved?

 Have alternative programs or approaches been examined, or should they be examined to determine whether objectives can be achieved more economically?

 Were all studies, such as cost-benefit studies, appropriate for analyzing costs and benefits of alternative approaches?

 Is the program producing benefits or detriments that were not contemplated by Congress when it authorized the program?

 Is the information furnished to Congress by the agency adequate and sufficiently accurate to permit Congress to monitor program achievements effectively?

 Does top management have the essential and reliable information necessary for exercising supervision and control and for ascertaining directions or trends?

 Does management have internal review or audit facilities adequate for monitoring program operations, identifying program and management problems and weaknesses, and insuring fiscal integrity?

268 GAO’s Government Auditing Standards — also known as the Yellow Book — identifies three types of engagements that audit agencies may conduct: (1) financial audits, (2) attestation engagements and reviews of financial statements, and (3) performance audits. See GAO, Government Auditing Standards, 2018 Revision, GAO-18-568G, pp. 7-14, https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/693136.pdf.

269 GAO issues government auditing standards — commonly referred to as generally accepted government auditing standards — as part of the Yellow Book. The Yellow Book includes performance audit standards and objectives. According to GAO, the four listed categories of performance audit objectives are not mutually exclusive and can be pursued simultaneously within a single audit engagement. For more information on performance audit objectives and standards, see GAO, Government Auditing Standards, 2018 Revision, pp. 10-14 and 154-193.

270 Agencies sometimes consider internal audit reports as predecisional and thus not suitable for release to Congress or the public.

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Selected Oversight Techniques, concluded ...

Monitoring the Federal Register and Unified Agenda

The Federal Register, available at https://www.federalregister.gov/, is published Monday through Friday (except official holidays) by the Office of the Federal Register in the National Archives and Records Administration.

It provides a uniform system for making available to the public regulations and legal notices issued by federal agencies and the President.

These include presidential proclamations and executive orders, federal agency documents having general applicability and legal effect, documents required to be published by act of Congress, and other federal agency documents of public interest.

Final regulations are codified by subject in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Documents are typically on file for public inspection in the Office of the Federal Register for at least one day before they are published unless the issuing agency requests earlier filing.

The list of documents on file for public inspection can be accessed at https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection.

Regular scrutiny of the Federal Register by committees and staff may help them to identify proposed rules and regulations in their areas of jurisdiction that merit congressional review as to need and likely effect.

Another website, Reginfo.gov (http://www.reginfo.gov/public/), also includes information about proposed and completed activities of federal agencies.

Specifically, it provides information on OMB review of regulations under Executive Order 12866 and information collection requests under the Paperwork Reduction Act.

It also contains the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, a semiannual publication of regulations and deregulatory actions that are currently under development at agencies across the government.

OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and the Regulatory Information Service Center of the General Services Administration (GSA) are responsible for this website.

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Special Studies and Investigations by Staff, Support Agencies, Outside Contractors, and Others

Staff investigations.

The staffs of committees and individual members play a vital role in the legislative process.

Committee staffs, through field investigations or on-site visits, for example, can help a committee develop its own independent evaluation of the effectiveness of laws.

Support agencies.

The legislative support agencies, directly or indirectly, can assist committees and members in conducting investigations and reviewing agency performance. 271

GAO is the agency most involved in investigations, audits, and program evaluations.

It has a large, professional investigative staff and produces numerous reports useful in oversight.

Outside contractors.

The 1974 Budget Act, as amended, and the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 authorize House and Senate committees to enlist the services of individual consultants or organizations to assist them in their work:

 A committee might contract with an independent research organization or employ professional investigators for short-term studies.

 Committees may also utilize, subject to appropriate approvals, federal and support agency employees to aid them in their oversight activities.

 Committees might also establish a voluntary advisory panel to assist them in their work.

Investigative commissions.

Congress has periodically established independent commissions to conduct studies or to investigate an event, activity, or government function.

Commissions are typically made up of outside experts and tasked with issuing a report to Congress (or to Congress and the President) that contains the commission’s findings and recommendations. 272

271 See “Oversight Information Sources and Consultant Services” later in this report for information on the capabilities of CRS, GAO, and CBO.

272 For additional information on advisory commissions, see CRS Report R40076, Congressional Commissions: Overview and Considerations for Congress, by Jacob R. Straus and William T. Egar.

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Re: CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT MANUAL

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Communicating with the Media

Public awareness of a problem can contribute to oversight.

Public and media attention to an issue may be considered a separate form of oversight or may be viewed as a complement to other oversight techniques.


Official resources are available to assist Members in interacting with the media and scheduling press conferences and with the broadcasting of official proceedings.
Additionally, nearly all Members maintain one or more social media accounts and use their institutional websites to help communicate with constituents and publicize issues. 273

Press Gallery Offices

The staff of the House and Senate press galleries provide services both for journalists and Members of Congress.

The press galleries can assist Members or staff with the distribution of press releases, facilitate Member communications with journalists, and help arrange location reservations or other logistics for press conferences or interviews. 274

Within each chamber, separate gallery offices exist for the daily press, periodical press, and radio/TV press.

A single office, serving both chambers, exists for the press photographers’ gallery.

The websites for each gallery are provided in Table 2.

273 For more information, see CRS In Focus IF10299, Linking with Constituents: Presentation of Social Media on Member of Congress Websites, by Jacob R. Straus and Matthew E. Glassman.

274 For additional information on the congressional press galleries, see CRS Report R44816, Congressional News Media and the House and Senate Press Galleries, by Sarah J. Eckman.

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Reporting Requirements, Consultation, and Other Sources of Information

Congressional oversight of the executive branch is dependent to a large degree upon information supplied by the agencies being overseen.

Reporting requirements and provisions that require an agency to consult with Congress or nonfederal stakeholders have been used in an attempt to ensure congressional and public access to information, statistics, and other data on the workings of the executive branch.

Thousands of reports arrive annually on Capitol Hill or are made public, and Congress and the public may thereby attempt to influence agencies’ decisionmaking. 275

Concerns about unnecessary, duplicative, and wasteful reports have prompted efforts to
reexamine these requirements. 276

One such initiative, in part stimulated by recommendations from the Vice President’s National Performance Review and from the GAO, resulted in the Federal Reports Elimination and Sunset Act of 1995.

In 2010, Congress established a statutory process for executive agencies and the President to use if they choose more systematically to propose the elimination or modification of reporting requirements. 277

275 See Congress Evolving in the Face of Complexity: Legislative Efforts to Embed Transparency, Participation, and Representation in Agency Operations, by Clinton T. Brass and Wendy Ginsberg, in CRS Committee Print CP10000, The Evolving Congress: A Committee Print Prepared for the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, coordinated by Walter J. Oleszek, Michael L. Koempel, and Robert Jay Dilger.

276 For discussion, see CRS Report R42490, Reexamination of Agency Reporting Requirements: Annual Process Under the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA), by Clinton T. Brass.

277 Ibid.

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Reporting Requirements

Reporting requirements affect executive and administrative agencies and officers, including the President, independent boards and commissions, and federally chartered corporations (as well as the judiciary).

These statutory provisions vary in terms of the specificity, detail, and type of information that Congress demands.

Reports may be required at periodic intervals, such as semiannually or at the end of a fiscal year, or submitted only if and when a specific event, activity, or set of conditions exists.

The reports may also call upon an agency, commission, or officer to:

 study, and provide recommendations, about a particular problem or concern;

 alert Congress or particular committees and subcommittees about a proposed or planned activity or operation;

 provide information about specific ongoing or just-completed operations, projects, or programs; or

 summarize an agency’s activities for the year or the prior six months.

Prior Consultation

Congress sometimes includes provisions in law or report language that require or direct agencies to consult with Congress or nonfederal stakeholders before taking actions.

Provisions like these may inform Congress and the public about agencies’ plans and activities.

The provisions may create opportunities for Congress and nonfederal stakeholders to influence an agency’s decisionmaking in areas that range from reallocation of budgetary resources through reprogramming, 278 notice-and-comment rulemaking, 279 and establishment of goals. 280

278 CRS Report R43098, Transfer and Reprogramming of Appropriations: An Overview of Authorities, Limitations, and Procedures, by Michelle D. Christensen.

279 CRS Report RL32240, The Federal Rulemaking Process: An Overview, coordinated by Maeve P. Carey.

280 CRS Report R42379, Changes to the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA): Overview of the New Framework of Products and Processes, by Clinton T. Brass.

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Re: CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT MANUAL

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Other Significant Sources of Information

A number of general management laws provide for additional sources of information, data, and material that may aid congressional oversight endeavors.

Many of the laws include reporting requirements or other provisions that involve public participation.

Some illustrative examples are included below, along with citations to when they were originally enacted. 281

Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act of 1990, as Amended (P.L. 101-576, 31 U.S.C. §§901 et seq.)

The CFO Act was intended to improve financial management throughout the federal government through various procedures and mechanisms:

 The 1990 act and subsequent amendments created two new posts within OMB, along with a new position of chief financial officer in each of the larger executive agencies, including all Cabinet departments.

 The CFO Act also provides for improvements in agency systems of accounting, financial management, and internal controls to assure the issuance of reliable financial information and to deter fraud as well as the waste and abuse of government resources.

 The enactment, furthermore, calls for the production of complete, reliable, timely, and consistent financial information for use by both the executive and the legislature in the financing, management, and evaluation of federal programs.

 The act, as amended, requires most executive branch entities to submit audited financial statements annually.

281 Many of the laws were codified in the U.S. Code, sometimes in one place and other times across a number of locations, and subsequently amended.

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Re: CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT MANUAL

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Other Significant Sources of Information, continued ...

Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) (P.L. 103-62), as Amended by the GPRA Modernization Act (GPRAMA) (P.L. 111-352, 31 U.S.C. §1101 note)

This act — commonly known as GPRA and amended substantially by GPRAMA — requires federal agencies to submit long-range strategic plans, annual performance plans based on these, follow-up annual reports, and government-wide performance plans:

 Strategic plans.

The strategic plans specify general goals and objectives for agencies based on the basic missions and underlying statutory or other authority of an agency.

These plans, initially required in 1997, are to be developed in consultation with relevant congressional offices and with information from “stakeholders” and then submitted to Congress.

 Annual performance plans and goals.

Based on these long-term plans, which may be modified if conditions and agency responsibilities change, the agencies are directed to set annual performance goals and to measure the results of their programs in achieving these goals.

The annual plans, which are also available to Congress, began with FY1999.

 Annual performance reports.

Each agency is to issue yearly follow-up reports assessing the implementation of its annual plan.

Beginning in 2000, these are required to be submitted after the end of the fiscal year.

 Government-wide plans and goals.

GPRA, as amended in 2010, calls for a federal government performance plan and priority goals under the direction of OMB.

These are to include “outcome-oriented goals covering a limited number of crosscutting policy areas; and goals for management improvements needed across the Federal Government.”

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Other Significant Sources of Information, continued ...

Congressional Review Act (P.L. 104-121)

This act, enacted in 1996, established a special set of parliamentary procedures by which Congress can review and disapprove federal rules and regulations. 282

Congress has legislative authority over federal regulations, as regulations are issued by agencies pursuant to statutory delegations of authority.

The CRA made it easier for Congress to exercise that legislative authority: It allows Congress to use expedited procedures to consider legislation — in the form of a joint resolution — disapproving a rule issued by a federal agency.

Specifically, the CRA requires that:

 All agencies promulgating a covered rule must submit a report to each house of Congress and the comptroller general containing specific information about the rule before it can go into effect.

 Rules designated by OMB as “major” may normally not go into effect until at least 60 days after submission, while non-major rules may become effective “as otherwise allowed in law,” usually 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

 All covered rules are subject to fast-track disapproval by passage of a joint resolution, even if they have already gone into effect, for a period of at least 60 days.

Upon enactment of such a joint resolution, no new rule that is “substantially the same” as the disapproved rule may be issued unless it is specifically authorized by a law enacted subsequent to the disapproval of the original rule.

 “No determination, finding, action, or omission” under the CRA shall be subject to judicial review.

282 For a detailed discussion, see CRS Report R43992, The Congressional Review Act (CRA): Frequently Asked Questions, by Maeve P. Carey and Christopher M. Davis; and CRS In Focus IF10023, The Congressional Review Act (CRA), by Maeve P. Carey and Christopher M. Davis.

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