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The decline of congressional oversight, in one chart

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The number of hearings held in the House and Senate has been steeply declining since the 96th Congress (1979-1980), according to a Brookings analysis cited in a recent report by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). There was a slight increase in House hearings from 2005-2007, but the total number of hearings are about two-thirds of what they were in the early 1980s. The number of hearings in the Senate has gone down by half since then. And they continued to decline in the 111th Congress (2009-2011), which held 318 fewer committee hearings than the previous one, the report points out.

Coburn laments this trend as another sign that government oversight has declined. “Committee hearings are not the only means of conducting oversight, but they are a prominent tool. Hearings give lawmakers the opportunity to unearth valuable information about federal programs and to question agency officials about the effectiveness of their management of those programs,” his report argues. Bruce Barlett points out that there was a particularly steep decline in House hearings during Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker.

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