To some observers, it might seem awfully tedious work, not worth the effort.
Congressional oversight requires patience, resilience and earnestness. Tracking down answers, obtaining documents and interviewing whistleblowers typically are not met with a warm welcome by the federal bureaucracy.
In my years of oversight, I've learned not to expect an open-armed hug from those under scrutiny. I'm more likely to get the cold shoulder. Some might say it even invites the opportunity for an IRS audit.
From the departments of Housing, Defense and Justice, to the IRS, FBI, FDA and EPA, I've come to believe that stonewalling is a condition of employment.
Deny and delay is a strategy that doesn't work for me or for my constituents.
The instinct for self-preservation covers up misdeeds that often are self-inflicted. Consider the insular culture at the Department of Veterans Affairs that contributed to delays in medical care to veterans. Dubious decision-making at the IRS led to a political targeting scandal that is harming the credibility of the federal tax collection agency.
Other troublesome patterns of mismanagement throughout the bureaucracy also require a short leash. That's why I'm hounding the Pentagon to clean up its dysfunctional bookkeeping system; nudging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to protect scarce health care dollars from waste, fraud and abuse; and, scrutinizing the Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for vulnerabilities in foreign worker and student visa programs.
Relentless oversight helps keep the government answerable to the people and that builds public trust in our institutions of government.
Hard-working American taxpayers pay for public services that tend the public good. Our way of life depends on the federal government to provide national security, manage foreign policy, handle matters of international trade and uphold law and order.
Consider the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is known around the world as a premier anti-crime, anti-terrorism agency that helps secure peace, stability and justice. It serves as a key link of U.S. law enforcement, providing leadership in our criminal justice system to help secure a safe and free society. Every day thousands of dedicated FBI agents put their lives on the line to serve and protect.
However, not even the FBI is immune from sloppy stewardship. Over the years, I've worked with a number of rank-and-file agents who have reported a culture of misdeeds and mismanagement.
Years ago, I led a congressional oversight investigation of the FBI crime lab. Prompted by an agent who blew the whistle on substandard science, I worked to raise awareness about its flawed quality control issues. A task force was created by the Justice Department to fix the flaws. Forensic science that examines evidence to solve criminal cases and prevent acts of terror must be held to the highest standards of ethics and integrity. Victims and defendants in our criminal justice system rely on scrupulous scientific evidence to determine guilt or innocence. Society can't afford to have the scales of justice compromised by mishandled forensics or flawed scientific testimony on the witness stand.
Incredibly, nearly two decades since my first look into misconduct at the FBI crime lab, an internal watchdog report shows scant results from the work of the task force that ostensibly spent almost a decade working to solve the problems. Shockingly, the task force failed to notify defendants, whose lives were on the line in capital cases, about the possibility of scientifically flawed evidence used at trial.
The FBI ranks "fairness," "respect for the dignity of those we protect," and "institutional integrity" among its core values. Based upon the review by the Department of Justice watchdog, the FBI in this case has flunked its own standards of excellence.
This adds to the FBI's poor track record for dragging its feet, mistreating agents and resisting accountability. Whistleblowers at the FBI have reported retaliation, reprisal or reassignment this year for coming forward to expose gender discrimination. In May I raised this issue at an FBI oversight hearing. The FBI director pledged to cooperate with internal reviews and stop further retaliation. However, more female employees since then have come forward with allegations of workplace discrimination.
The federal agency tasked with enforcing law and order in our society should not be preventing its own employees from seeking due process under the law. High-profile cases of mismanagement undermine its reputation to solve high-profile criminal and terrorism cases.
The FBI must restore its commitment to truth, fairness and justice. Anything less is a disservice to its legacy and mission. More importantly, its legion of dedicated agents and American public deserve nothing less.
And throughout the federal bureaucracy, congressional oversight injects a dose of good government that helps prevent overreach and diagnose bureaucratic wrongdoing. Robust checks and balances is just what the Constitution ordered.