Amid polarization, bipartisan oversight still exists in Congress

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher A. Wray appears before a House Committee on the Judiciary hearing “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation” in the US Capitol Visitors Center Auditorium at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Credit: Rod Lamkey / CNP/Sipa USANo Use Germany.

Since Democrats assumed unified control of government in Washington last January, many of Congress’s highest-profile investigations have been beset by partisan conflict. The House’s effort to investigate the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, for example, is now being led by a select committee that has only two Republican members—both named by Democrats. That move came after the House GOP leadership pulled its entire slate of recommended committee members in response to a refusal by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to empanel several proponents of the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election.

But House committees’ oversight of the executive branch extends far beyond these headline-grabbing issues. Even amid House Democrats’ often contentious oversight of the Trump administration in 2019 and 2020, occasional bipartisan investigations emerged—and an early look at the 117th Congress to date suggests oversight can still be bipartisan even during high partisan conflict.

Over the first six months of the 117th Congress (January-June 2021), House committees sent 128 letters to agencies and other actors as part of efforts to oversee the executive branch. Twenty-nine percent of these letters were bipartisan, meaning both the Democratic chair and Republican ranking member signed the letter. This is a noticeable increase in bipartisanship from the 116th Congress, where, in several comparable periods, the share of oversight letters that were bipartisan was much lower. For example, during the first six months of the 116th Congress (January-June 2019), House Democrats sent 363 executive branch oversight letters, of which only 7% were bipartisan.

There are several possible explanations for this shift. With a Republican president in the White House in 2019, Republican ranking members may have been less willing to join oversight of a same-party president than they are now to conduct oversight of a Democratic president. The transition from a Republican president to a Democratic one may also be driving a drop in the number of executive branch oversight letters between the first six months of 2019, when 363 of these were sent by Democratic-led committees, and the first six months of 2021, when only 128 were. (This trend is consistent with historical evidence that indicates House committees are less interested in aggressive oversight of the same party that holds the House majority.)

There is also reason to think that the COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced bipartisanship in oversight as well. After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic midway through the 116th Congress, there was more oversight of the executive branch but less bipartisanship in that oversight, possibly a result of the politization of the pandemic response. As House Democrats ramped up their oversight investigations into the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19, the share of oversight letters that were bipartisan fell from 8% to 3%. The looming election in November 2020 likely contributed to this trend as well; Republicans who might have otherwise joined Democratic efforts to oversee the executive branch’s handling of the pandemic may have been more reluctant to do so in an election year.

Table 1: Congressional oversight letters in 117th and 116th Congresses, by time period and bipartisanship

Time Period Oversight Letters Bipartisan Oversight Letters
117th Congress
(Jan.-June 2021)
128 37 (29%)
116th Congress
(Jan. 2019-Dec. 2020)
1,321 74 (6%)
     First 6 months
(Jan.-June 2019)
363 24 (7%)
(Jan. 2019-Feb. 2020)
606 51 (8%)
(March 2020-Dec. 2020)
715 23 (3%)

Bipartisanship is not realized equally

In the period under study here, the majority of bipartisan oversight letters come from just a few committees. So far this year, the Committee on Oversight and Reform has sent the most oversight letters that are bipartisan, accounting for 65% of the total bipartisan letters sent by House committees. The Energy and Commerce Committee, the clear leader in bipartisan oversight in the 116th Congress, is tied for second place in the 117th Congress, having sent five bipartisan letters thus far. (While this relative decline may have several causes, one possible explanation involves turnover in the Republican ranking member position between the two congresses.) Having a few committees engage in most of the bipartisanship is consistent with the 116th Congress, where three committees sent roughly half (54%) of the 74 total bipartisan oversight letters.

In both congresses, the large numbers of letters attributed to these committees largely stem from a few investigations in which many letters are sent at once. For example, 23 of the 24 letters sent by the Oversight and Reform Committee in the 117th Congress were a part of a single investigation into the functioning of federal inspectors general. When counting each of these “letter dumps” as one data point, House committees have started a total of 11 bipartisan inquiries so far in the 117th Congress. The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is responsible for almost half of these investigations, conducting five distinct bipartisan inquiries throughout the 117th Congress to date.

This variation in how often committees engage in bipartisan oversight may have several explanations, but it does not seem to be neatly related to how ideologically different the Democratic and Republican committee leaders are. When we use a conventional political science measure of members’ relative ideological position, the majority of bipartisan investigations are occurring in committees with neither the most ideologically similar nor the most ideologically different chairs and ranking members.

Bipartisanship in congressional oversight is important not for some intrinsic reason, but because bipartisan engagement on an issue can be a signal that members are fulfilling their institutional role as a counterweight to the executive branch. To be sure, some of the bipartisan oversight work undertaken in the 117th Congress is likely the result of Republicans rediscovering an interest in checking a Democratic president. But a willingness of Democrats to investigate policy implementation by an executive branch controlled by their own party—and to do so in a way that sees some Republicans joining them—is an important indicator of Congress taking its institutional responsibilities seriously.

The current era of hyperpartisanship means that there are fewer high-profile issues that compel members of both parties to conduct thorough investigations together. But, as the emerging congressional attention to the withdrawal from Afghanistan indicates, they do emerge occasionally. Whether Congress can build on some of the trends in bipartisanship discussed here and follow through on the initial indication of bipartisan interest in serious oversight remains to be seen.

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