To ensure that the ‘intent’ of the legislation it passes is followed adequately, the legislative branch of the United States – Congress – is vested with the power of oversight (better known as ‘scrutiny’ in Europe) over the country’s executive branch, the US Administration. US oversight functions differently from the way the EU’s legislative branch, the European Parliament, exercises scrutiny over the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. This is due in part to the underlying differences between the EU and US systems of government, the US being a sovereign state whose Congress both passes legislation and holds the right of legislative initiative. Over the years, the European Parliament has been increasingly keen to exercise policy and legislative initiative – a prerogative which the Treaties assign to the Commission in most areas. It employs methods of oversight with the aim, amongst others, of making proposals on how to improve policies or programmes. Tension in the EU system is less present between the Parliament and the Commission, than between the Parliament and the Council of the EU, the other arm of the legislative branch.
The US Congress has two chambers – Senate and House of Representatives – and has numerous formal and informal instruments at its disposal to hold the executive to account. While its activities largely depend on Senators’ and representatives’ individual interests, it has been suggested that representatives engage in more regular and systematic oversight, while senators seek the limelight more often and step in with the help of the media whenever the executive is suspected of poor policy implementation. The European Parliament, in comparison, seeks to influence policy and hold the European Commission to account at all points of the legislative and policy cycle, from agenda-setting through consultation and legislation to scrutiny, which should in turn feed back into agenda-setting.
Three agencies staffed with civil servants support the US Congress in its oversight activities: the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CRS provides committees and individual members with written and oral expertise. In the European Parliament, these activities are carried out by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) and the various policy departments. GAO conducts external audits of federal government expenditure, including performance audits. In broad terms, its functions correspond to those of the European Court of Auditors. CBO supports Congress by performing budgetary and economic analyses and has no direct counterpart in the European Parliament or in any other EU institution.
Much of US oversight is also carried out by the executive. All government departments and agencies have an Office of Inspector General, which has as an internal control function. When the US executive engages in regulation, it provides a regulatory impact analysis for proposals likely to have a significant economic impact. In contrast, the European Commission carries out impact assessments in connection with major proposals, which the European Parliament analyses concurrently with the aid of specialised parliamentary services. The US executive also evaluates existing policy, albeit not yet very systematically. The European Parliament, supported by EPRS, makes concrete efforts to link ex-post evaluation to future proposals.
When comparing US Congressional oversight specifically over two fields – environmental policy and foreign affairs –examples of both evidence-based oversight and politically motivated oversight of the executive can be found in both cases; the latter especially when Congress and the Administration are controlled by opposing parties. When overseeing the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress has complained that the executive is stepping into its legislative domain, instead of regulating – that is, making legislation more concrete and thus applicable. Oversight of the US State Department ranges from analysing its internal organisation and the administration of programmes to repeated hearings on a particular incident in order to discredit a former Secretary of State.