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The Accountability Gap

Voters grow anxious about big government and one-party rule.

12:00 AM, Sep 17, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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A gathering sense of unease is spreading across America. It's more than worries about the economy or jobs. Those have been around for a while and will no doubt persist.

This public discomfort differs from apprehension about spending and debt or even too much government control over sectors of the economy, from autos to banking to executive pay. Although these trepidations are equally real.

But there's another nagging misgiving. It's about the consequences of a growing accountability gap in Washington. With the same party controlling the White House and Congress, many Americans worry Democrats can and will do whatever they want--no matter what anyone else thinks. To paraphrase the late Bryce Harlow, adviser to several Republican presidents: it's as if the Democrats' political strength has "unchecked the checks and balances."

These conditions produce frustration and anger. They fueled the tens of thousands attending town hall meetings in August and generated the energy behind the throng of citizens that descended on the Capitol last weekend. It even helps explain how a normally polite and civil congressman from South Carolina named Joe Wilson could exhibit such contempt on the House floor last week during the president's health care speech.

Several seemingly unrelated threads drive this new trepidation: growing government, increased partisanship, and one-party rule in Washington. Each causes concern individually. But collectively, they produce an even more threatening concoction.

The growing size and power of the federal government is well known. Unprecedented levels of spending and debt, combined with unmatched government involvement in a variety of industries, lead many to wonder if the current course is sustainable.

Partisan polarization in Congress is also at historic levels. More than any other time in recent history, the political parties gauge their success based on "team production," a phrase coined by political scientists Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins in their book Why Parties? Team production means partisan wins. This approach leaves little room for bipartisanship. It usually leads the majority to trample the minority, particularly in the U.S. House. As a result, attempts to put the brakes on the majority's aspirations typically fall short.

One-party rule of the executive and legislative branch is the third leg of the new power trifecta. Instead of operating as coequal branches of government, checking each other's power, the Congress and president operate as political allies, not constitutional adversaries. A certain level of teamwork between them is natural. But in today's highly polarized world, the legitimate lines between the branches are either significantly blurred or wiped out.

Lapses in congressional oversight of the executive branch are one of the first casualties. And it's this breakdown in accountability that makes many Americans nervous. Under normal circumstances, with Washington spending at historic levels, most would conclude the country needs more, rather than less, legislative supervision of executive branch policies. Yet the current Congress seems more interested in investigating past political opponents than ensuring its constitutional duties as a coequal branch of government. The Democrats in Congress have shown little-to-no interest in holding the executive branch accountable for spending taxpayer money wisely. As an illustration, the House Oversight Committee held 40 percent fewer hearings this year compared to the same period in 2008 when they conducted a series of politically-charged inquiries investigating the Bush administration, according to knowledgeable congressional sources.

Failing to hold your own party responsible through vigorous congressional oversight is not an imperfection that plagues just the current Democratic majority. Some new research by David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull in the current issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly investigates the politics of congressional investigations from 1947-2004. Their research demonstrates divided government generates more intensive oversight efforts to investigate waste, fraud and abuse than when Congress and the president are controlled by the same party.

Democrats could ease some public concern about concentrated power by initiating several tough, high-visibility congressional investigations of executive branch spending. History suggests they won't.