The Congressional Oversight Hearing Index (COHI) is a new analytical database that enables the public to evaluate how well each committee in Congress is performing its vital oversight role. This searchable database categorizes and catalogs all congressional hearings held during the last twelve years (roughly 20,000 hearings). Using this data, the Index assigns grades to the oversight performance of current congressional committees and past committees going back to 2009.
The Lugar Center believes that Congressional oversight is an essential component of American democracy that improves the transparency and performance of our government, illuminates ethical malfeasance within our government or the private sector, and guards against the accumulation of unchecked power in the executive branch. Congress is best able to uphold its responsibilities under Article I of the Constitution when committees are strong and congressional processes are devoted to regular order.
Congressional oversight could be improved in numerous ways. But the most fundamental oversight problem is Congress’s failure to consistently assert its prerogatives, thereby ceding authority and power to the executive branch. The Federal government is a huge enterprise. Every committee has innumerable programs and officials over which it has oversight jurisdiction. There are no shortages of topics that would benefit from public oversight by Congress. Oversight should not diminish when Congress and the Presidency are controlled by the same party.
The COHI grades each Congressional committee on its performance relative to the past performance of the same committee. Because the database of hearings is updated as new hearings occur, the grade of each committee can fluctuate from week to week during the Congress. The formula for grading Committees is straightforward. An increase in the tempo of oversight hearings will cause a committee’s grade to go up. A failure to hold oversight hearings will cause a grade to decline. If a House or Senate committee is failing to meet historical standards because of partisan bias, the inattention of the committee chair, or any other reasons, the COHI will illuminate that shortfall.
Beyond its focus on oversight, the Congressional Oversight Hearing Index can be used by researchers and members of the public to efficiently access any hearing held in the last twelve years. This new hearing data base is searchable by title, contains both House and Senate hearings, is updated weekly, provides links to transcripts and video, and is free.
The Lugar Center defines oversight broadly. We believe it includes: 1) any activity by Congress or its members to assess and hold accountable the executive branch, independent agencies, and private sector entities for their performance and their adherence to laws and ethical standards; 2) any activity by Congress or its members to oversee the development or implementation of agency policies and regulations; and 3) any activity by Congress or its members to assess the outcome and implementation of previous legislation and prepare for new legislative efforts or adjustments. We recognize, however, that “oversight” is often used more restrictively to refer to attempts by the Legislative Branch to investigate malfeasance or failures in the Executive Branch or the private sector with the aim of illuminating and correcting related problems. Our Index provides data and analysis on Congress’s performance on both the broader and more restrictive definitions of oversight.
Hearings are not the only oversight mechanism available to members of Congress. Members also perform oversight through means that are often less formal and less public, including letters to agencies, phone calls to agency heads, and meetings. But most cases of significant oversight involve or are accompanied by hearings. A thorough examination of the hearing record captures a large percentage of Congress’s most notable oversight efforts, and it allows for an objective set of data that can be compared to establish historical norms for each committee. We invite the public to use our site to better inform themselves about the activities and performance of Congressional committees.