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Law Library of Congress Report Examines Parliamentary Oversight in Eight Countries

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A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliamentary Oversight: Parliament’s Power to Hold Government to Account, states that parliamentary oversight of governmental actions is one of the three core functions of a parliament, in addition to legislating (especially passage of the annual budget) and the representation of constituents. The report recognized that holding governments to account is an essential feature of a system of checks and balances in a democracy.

Congressional Hearing, Illustration from a CALI Lesson by Eric Molinsky (August 17, 2011 ). Source: Flickr account of CALI - Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. Used under Creative Commons License,
Congressional Hearing, Illustration from a CALI Lesson by Eric Molinsky (August 17, 2011). Source: Flickr account of CALI – Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. Used under Creative Commons License,

Of course, this isn’t a new idea. The French philosopher Montesquieu, in his 1748 work The Spirit of Laws observed that,

… the legislative power, in a free state . . . has a right, and ought to have the means, of examining in what manner its laws have been executed; an advantage which this government has over . . . [regimes that were under no obligation to give] account of their administration.

More than a century later, in his work Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, opined that

… the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust, or fulfill it in a manner which conflicts with the deliberate sense of the nation, to expel them from office, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors.

Do parliaments around the world currently exercise this important role of holding their countries’ governments accountable for their actions? What is the legal basis for the authority of parliaments to provide oversight over government activities? What means are utilized for that purpose? Are there parliamentary “in house” procedures that facilitate oversight? Are there any special parliamentary units tasked with oversight? Are there any designated oversight agencies that conduct or assist parliaments in overseeing the executive branch? What enforcement powers exist to enable the proper conduct of oversight?

An August 2017 Law Library of Congress report, Parliamentary Oversight of the Executive Branch, examines the legal basis, procedures, and parliamentary institutions that perform oversight of government actions in the following countries: Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A review of parliamentary oversight in these eight countries indicates that oversight powers usually derive from general authorization in constitutional provisions or basic laws. In addition, some countries have legislation that establishes oversight through designated parliamentary committees or through special oversight bodies. Enforcement of compliance with summonses to appear or to produce documents that are necessary for parliamentary inquiries are also regulated by legislation in a number of countries. In contrast, parliamentary oversight in the United Kingdom is governed by long-established customs and conventions.

Reviews of governmental actions are often conducted in committee hearings and committees of inquiries. Among additional oversight mechanisms are parliamentary oral and written questions and interpellations (a procedure in some legislative bodies of asking a government official to explain an act or policy, sometimes leading, in parliamentary systems, to a vote of no-confidence or a change of government). A vote of no-confidence or censure against the government as a whole (or, as indicated in the Law Library’s report, in some countries against a particular minister) is also a means of oversight.

Among the means of congressional oversight in the U.S. are committees’ subpoena powers; investigations of executive- branch activities and officials; Senate confirmation of high-level executive- branch appointees; authorization of agencies and programs; appropriation of funds for agencies and programs; and development of the federal budget.

The Law Library’s report indicates that several of the countries studied have established independent oversight bodies. In Canada, for example, there are nine federal oversight offices (“Officers of Parliament”), each responsible for an assigned area. In the U.S, similarly, there are several independent oversight agencies, including the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGI); the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (while mainly concerned with developing policy and budgets for the President, the OMB “also serves as an information clearinghouse for executive agencies and is a useful source of information about agency activities for investigative and oversight committees”); the Government Accountability Office (GAO); and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

In addition to independent oversight bodies, the Law Library’s report discusses a special parliamentary unit in the Italian parliament, the Service for Parliamentary Control (SPC). The SPC is tasked with specific oversight duties, including verification of the implementation of laws and regulations by the executive branch and verification of the government’s compliance with parliamentary legislation.

While not covered in the report, I found it interesting to note that the new Unit for Parliamentary Oversight, KATEF, was recently established in the Israeli Knesset (parliament). KATEF’s objectives include expanding Knesset oversight over the work of the government and providing Knesset members and committees with the necessary means to perform their oversight tasks. This will be achieved, according to KATEF’s head, by improving coordination between the Knesset and various government actors, as well as by assisting public participation through supporting the Open Governance Partnership, among other activities.

The Law Library’s Comprehensive Index of Legal Reports includes a number of legal reports on various aspects of governance, including on the topics of “Government Powers and Litigation” and “Government Spending.” To receive alerts when any new reports are published, you can subscribe to email updates and the RSS feed for Law Library Reports (click the “subscribe” button on the Law Library’s website).

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