Portraits in Oversight

Want to know what is meant by the term “oversight”? Oversight investigations are inquiries by Congress to examine problems, issues, or troubling events in the public or private sectors. To help explain, here are some short portraits of important congressional oversight investigations as well as some key past figures in oversight. Join us for a quick history walk!  

Carl Levin

Senator Carl Levin

Carl Levin, inspiration for the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy, was a champion of fact-based, bipartisan, high-quality oversight investigations by Congress. His inquiries spanned a wide array of subjects including government mismanagement, money laundering, offshore tax abuse, corporate misconduct, torture of detainees, military effectiveness, and more, producing not only meaningful hearings and reports but also new laws to address identified problems. His motto: “Good government requires good oversight.”

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Congress’ First Investigation:
Gen St. Clair’s Defeat

The very first oversight investigation undertaken by the U.S. Congress occurred in 1792, just three years after the U.S. Constitution took effect. The inquiry delved into a significant U.S. military defeat, while also setting important precedents for future congressional oversight investigations.


Joint Committee
on the Conduct of the Civil War

During the Civil War, from December 1861 to May 1865, the U.S. Congress convened a special joint investigative committee to inquire “into the whole conduct of the war.” Led by Republicans but with bipartisan support, the committee spent nearly four years compiling evidence, holding hearings, issuing reports, and demanding reforms.


Congress Investigates
KKK Violence During Reconstruction

During the 1870s, in a period now known as Reconstruction, Congress launched two extensive investigations into a frightening new organization, the Ku Klux Klan, exposed its role in escalating racial violence in the South, and supported legislative and administrative actions to curb its brutality and lawlessness.


Congress Investigates the Titanic Disaster

Just four days after the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic that resulted in the death of over 1,500 passengers and crew, the Senate Commerce Committee initiated a vigorous, bipartisan inquiry into the cause of the disaster. The extensive investigation and 18 days of hearings revealed numerous reasons for the shocking loss of life, including safety lapses.  The committee’s work not only led to significant legislation that improved maritime safety, but became part of the “unsinkable” ship’s story that continues to fascinate the public today.


Thomas Walsh and the Teapot Dome Investigation

Thomas Walsh represented the state of Montana in the U.S. Senate from 1913 to 1933. During his tenure, he played a critical role in one of the most important examples of Senate investigations into federal bribery, corruption, and a failure to prosecute, as well as the right of Congress to investigate and expose wrongdoing.


Ferdinand Pecora and the 1929 Stock Market Crash

Congressional members of both parties spent the years following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression attempting to investigate the causes of the financial devastation, with little success until the advent of the Pecora Investigation.         


Harry Truman and the Investigation of Waste, Fraud, & Abuse in World War II

Harry S. Truman, though best known as the 33rd President of the United States, gained initial prominence in national politics as a Missouri senator from 1935 to 1945. His fame arose from his oversight efforts related to World War II.


Joe McCarthy’s Oversight Abuses

Focusing on Cold War fears of communism and subversion, Senator McCarthy became infamous for abusing his congressional oversight powers and riding roughshod over individuals’ dignity and constitutional rights.                                                     


American Mobster Joseph Michael Valachi taking the oath before the US Senate with his right hand raised.

Congress Investigates the Mafia

In 1963, Joseph Valachi, a “soldier” of the Genovese crime family, became the first member of the American Mafia to publicly acknowledge its existence and describe its inner workings to a captivated American audience during televised hearings held by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. His disclosures educated the public about organized crime and motivated Congress to enact tough new anti-racketeering laws.


Abraham Ribicoff and the Traffic Safety Hearings

Abraham Ribicoff led a Senate oversight investigation that not only fundamentally changed how the federal government handled motor vehicle safety problems, but also helped save millions of lives.                                                                                                                     


The Watergate Hearings

Other congressional oversight examples include one of the most important Senate investigations, the investigation into the Watergate scandal. It is a story of how Members of Congress, despite differing parties, opinions, and political ambitions, ultimately came together at a time of crisis in the best interests of the country.


Frank Church and the Church Committee

Frank Church led one of the most important oversight investigations ever undertaken by Congress into covert operations by the U.S. intelligence community.  His work began on January 27, 1975, when the Senate voted 82-to-4 to form the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities; it would come to be called the Church Committee, after its chair. 


Image of a fence with a sign that says "Admittance by Permit Only. Visitors Apply 1001 97'' 800' 400'' Office of Love Canal Task Force"

Congress and the Love Canal Disaster

Love Canal was a dumping site for Hooker Chemical Company’s industrial waste from 1942 to 1953. Over the next 20 years, the toxic chemicals leached into the soil and water of the surrounding neighborhoods, causing severe health problems. In 1979, multiple congressional oversight investigations exposed the deadly impact of that environmental disaster and led to enactment of the Superfund Program to identify and  clean up toxic sites.


Rep. John Dingell, Jr.

John D. Dingell, Jr. holds the record as the longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives with more than 59 consecutive years of service representing southeast Michigan. He also chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, holding hard-hitting investigations that spurred important legislative reforms. 


The Iran-Contra Affair

In the summer of 1987, televised congressional hearings exposing the Iran-Contra scandal gripped the nation, disclosing dramatic facts involving terrorists, American hostages, weapons sales, taxpayer dollars, and covert operations, as well as an ongoing struggle between the executive and legislative branches over who controls U.S. foreign policy and intelligence activities.


Henry Waxman and Big Tobacco

Rep. Henry Waxman used congressional oversight to wage a 25-year effort, from 1982 to 2009, to expose and mandate safeguards against the health hazards caused by tobacco products. His sustained oversight effort helped save millions of Americans from tobacco-related disease and disability as well as billions in taxpayer dollars that would have otherwise been spent on health care costs.


Senator Tom Coburn

Dr. Tom Coburn was an Oklahoma family physician and obstetrician who served the Sooner State in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001 and the Senate from 2005 to 2015. Earning the nickname “Dr. No” for introducing at least 1,000 amendments opposing government spending, he also published more than 50 oversight reports during his decade in the Senate.


Investigation into 9/11 Terrorist Attack

On September 11, 2001, the Al-Qa’ida terrorist organization hijacked four commercial airplanes and flew two into the World Trade Center buildings in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The final plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, resulting in the deaths of 3,025 people, led to the first ever bicameral investigation by the two standing intelligence committees in Congress. 


Congress and the Enron Scandal

On December 2, 2001, despite claiming assets in excess of $60 billion and revenues exceeding $100 billion, Enron Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, becoming the then-largest bankrupt corporation in U.S. history. The resulting economic dislocation sparked one of most extensive bipartisan, bicameral congressional investigations by Congress in years, eventually leading to landmark legislation.


John McCain and the Abramoff Tribal Lobbying Scandal

This two-year investigation led by Sen. John McCain exposed how Native American tribes were victimized by a web of corrupt lobbying practices by Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others, spurring high-profile resignations, prison sentences, and lobbying reforms.


Congress Investigates Gun Trafficking in Operation Fast and Furious

In 2011, House and Senate Republicans launched a lengthy congressional investigation into a failed federal law enforcement strategy that allowed guns bought in Arizona to be trafficked into Mexico without first seizing the illegally purchased guns. The inquiry raised law enforcement, whistleblower, and obstruction of Congress concerns; sparked a years-long court battle over congressional access to executive branch documents; and initiated the first House vote to hold a sitting Cabinet member in contempt of Congress.


Rep. Elijah E. Cummings

For 23 years, Elijah E. Cummings, the son of sharecroppers, represented Maryland’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected in 1996, he served on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform from his earliest days in Congress until his death in 2019, becoming its Ranking Minority Member in December 2010 and Committee Chair in his last year.

Watch the launch of our Oversight Portraits series!