What is the purpose of the Lugar Center’s Congressional Oversight Hearing Index?

The Congressional Oversight Hearing Index (COHI) is an analytical tool that citizens, news organizations, and members of Congress can use to assess the oversight performance of congressional committees. Our database has classified nearly 20,000 hearings since 2009 into eight categories. These categories are based on a hearing’s relationship to oversight. Each current committee is compared to the past oversight hearing standards of that committee. We believe that Congress works best when committees are strong and congressional processes are devoted to regular order.

Robust Congressional oversight is essential to the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution, the achievement of transparent democratic processes, and the prevention of an “imperial presidency.”

How do you define “oversight?”

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.

Why does the Committee Oversight Hearing Index focus on committees?

Oversight by individual members of Congress does occur. But committees are the centers of congressional oversight. Committees contain the deepest issue-area expertise in Congress, and they wield most oversight resources. Our intent is to hold committees and their leaders accountable for how actively they perform their oversight responsibilities.

Why does this study focus on hearings?

We recognize that there are forms of congressional oversight besides hearings. Members of Congress and their staffs also write letters and make calls to agencies requesting information or asserting their own views. (We recommend an excellent project by the Brookings Institution that tracks oversight letters and hearings emanating from the House of Representatives during the Trump era). Members and their staffs also meet with agency representatives outside of the hearing format. However, most cases of significant oversight involve or are accompanied by hearings. A thorough examination of the hearing record will capture a large percentage of the most notable oversight efforts. Moreover, the hearing record allows us to develop an objective historical standard for the amount of oversight that typically occurs in each Committee.

Do you consider all oversight to be good oversight?

We consider active committees that place emphasis on oversight to be essential to maintaining Constitutional separation of powers and maximizing government performance. However, we recognize that some committee oversight hearings are highly partisan or contain other counterproductive elements. We welcome other studies that attempt to make judgements about the quality of oversight hearings. However, labeling specific oversight efforts as politicized or unproductive requires a subjective judgment. Our study is focused on measurable objective criteria and what we believe to be Congress’ most fundamental oversight problem: its failure to assert its prerogatives, thereby ceding authority and power to the executive branch.

Do you consider all hearings to have an oversight component?

Yes. This is why we give some oversight credit to every hearing held in Congress. The purpose of most “fact finding” hearings with non-governmental witnesses is to assess general conditions. Yet even these hearings have some relevance to the performance of our government. Similarly, nomination hearings, which are focused on a nominee’s qualifications, also include discussion of problems the nominee will encounter. For example, nomination hearings for ambassadorial nominees typically serve as a review of recent administration policies and diplomacy toward the countries where they will serve.

How are committee grades determined?

For a full explanation, consult the Methodology page of our website.

How do Committee roles and jurisdictions affect grade outcomes?

Every committee has unique responsibilities that affect its hearing portfolio. For example, the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees have much heavier nomination responsibilities than other committees because of their roles in confirming judges and ambassadors, respectively. A larger share of their time and assets must be devoted to evaluating and approving nominees. Therefore a larger share of their hearings will fall into this category regardless of who chairs the committee. Any system for studying hearings, must take account of such differences. This is why our grades are based on how well current Chairs of committees meet the recent historical standard set by their own committee in previous Congresses.

Do you exclude any committees from your study?

Data from all standing and permanent committees in both houses are included, but we do not give a grade to the House or Senate Intelligence Committees because such a high percentage of their hearings are closed. We also do not give a grade to the Senate Rules Committee or the House Administration Committee, because their narrow jurisdictions result in such a small sample of hearings. We do not grade the House Rules Committee because the vast majority of its hearings are about the terms under which a bill will come to the House floor. The role of House Rules is to respond to the Speaker’s plans for considering bills on the floor, so most of its hearing schedule is determined externally. Finally, we do not include data or grades on temporary committees created in a single Congress because they cannot be compared to a historical standard derived from previous Congresses.

Are subcommittee hearings attributable to the grade of the whole committee?

Yes. A committee’s grade derives equal benefit from a subcommittee hearing as from a hearing of the whole committee. Committee Chairs who encourage their subcommittee Chairs to perform oversight will see their grade improve.

Is one of your aims to see how oversight is affected by changes in party control of Congress or the Presidency?

Yes. In our observation when the White House or a chamber of Congress changes party control, patterns of oversight often change, sometimes dramatically. We want to give credit to committee Chairs who maintain a strong oversight tempo, even when their party controls the White House.

Does a poor grade always mean that a Chair is failing to conduct sufficient oversight?

All committee Chairs are faced with the choice of how to use the oversight instruments at their disposal. It is possible that a Chair who receives a poor grade based on the hearing record is performing some degree of additional oversight through other means (letters, phone calls, site visits, etc.). But our grade is a very strong indicator of whether a Chair is energetically pursuing oversight, and we believe even if other methods of oversight are being employed, a low tempo of public hearings reduces a committee’s oversight effectiveness.

Can a Committee score well on one hearing criteria, but poorly on others?

Yes. A committee may have a busy hearing schedule that generates many hearings, but simultaneously fails to perform investigative oversight. Conversely, a committee may have advanced notable cases of investigative oversight but failed to meet the historical standards for policy and legislative hearings, or overall numbers of hearings. The COHI breaks out each category of hearings for each committee so consumers of this information can discern patterns of activity.

Can the categorization of a specific hearing be changed?

Yes. We consider the Congressional Oversight Hearing Index to be a dynamic document. We are open to reviewing specific hearings to reassess their oversight categorization. Changing a hearing’s categorization can change a committee’s grade. However, changing the categorization of a small number of hearings is unlikely to change grades dramatically.

Can the numbers of hearings held in one committee be fairly compared to the number of hearings in a different committee?

Such comparisons might be instructive in some cases. However, usually they are not valid because of the significant differences in committee roles, jurisdictions, and resources. Some committees have large budgets, broad jurisdictions, and multiple subcommittees. Others have much smaller budgets, narrow jurisdictions, and few or no subcommittees. For example, one cannot fairly compare the hearing tempo of the Senate Agriculture Committee (with the smallest budget and staff of any “A” Committee in the Senate) with the Senate Finance Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over taxes, health care, Social Security, trade, and other areas of policy.

Can hearings be classified in more than one category or split between two categories?

No. We recognize that some hearings have more than one purpose or motivation. But our methodology requires that we place each hearing in a single category.

Can a committee’s oversight tempo be slow due to a lack of events to investigate during a particular Congress?

A complex scandal may afford a committee with more grist for the investigative mill in a particular Congress. But we don’t regard energetic oversight in committees to be dependent on external events. 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. Our philosophy is that the main determinant of a committee’s oversight performance is the energy and priority given to oversight by the Chair of the whole committee and the Chairs of subcommittees, if any. A Chair who decides to make oversight a priority and applies personal energy to it will score well.

Are committees penalized for slower hearing activity due to the Covid-19 crisis?

No, committees are not penalized for holding fewer hearings as a result of Covid-19. For a full explanation, please consult our Covid-19 statement.