Iowa's U.S. Senate race is one of the nation's most entertaining. Its Republican nominee was propelled from obscurity by a television commercial about hog castration. The Democratic nominee, an ambitious Congressman from northeast Iowa named Bruce Braley, has recently been criticized for threatening to sue after a neighbor's chicken wandered into his yard.
But in the context of the ongoing Veterans Affairs Department health care scandal, Braley's opponent is now chopping away at another potential weak point: It turns out that Braley failed to attend more than three-quarters of the hearings held by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, on which he sat during the last Congress.
The story is getting some play in Iowa, but it has a deeper significance than just one Senate race. It underscores an important problem that afflicts members of both parties and threatens our constitutional system.
In his report last month on the health care scandal at the department, retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., penned an indictment of Congress, which typically provides the necessary oversight of the executive branch. “Congress has ignored its oversight role because it requires hard work,” Coburn wrote. “Cutting ribbons at new VA medical centers and issuing press releases about new veterans' programs are far more appealing to politicians running for re-election than holding Department officials accountable for mismanagement.”
Of all the duties members of Congress have, oversight might be both the most important and the least attractive. If you're a member of Congress looking for acclaim, there are dozens of other things you'd rather do – many of which are also important functions.
You'll get more recognition by writing and passing popular legislation. You'll get more praise from your colleagues – and more support for your own ambitions – if you spend your time raising money and sharing the wealth with your party's more vulnerable members. You'll get more praise back home if you dedicate your time and your staff to constituent services, or if you deliver funding for roads and bridges. You'll raise your profile more by saying edgy things that will make television producers schedule you on "Meet the Press."
But to oversee of a massive bureaucracy like the one at the VA – and to do it effectively? There's no return on that. It's the worst kind of work for a member of Congress – laborious and nearly worthless from a public relations perspective.
That is, until something goes horribly wrong.
Just ask the 99 percent of Americans who have never heard of House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. He has held more than 40 oversight hearings since this Congress began last January on such unglamorous topics as delays in care and veterans' claims, constant budget overruns for VA construction, and an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at a VA facility, among others. In many cases, the topics of oversight don't even satisfy the base urge to score cheap partisan points. Only now, amid revelations of atrocious bureaucratic malfeasance and unnecessary veteran deaths, does VA oversight get any public attention.
The American system of government demands a high level of vigilance from Congress, but its members often see little point in living up to that ideal. It becomes worse when partisanship prompts a majority in Congress to protect its own president – and both parties have demonstrated this shortcoming within just the last 10 years.
Perhaps the greatest incentive is Braley's example. If you don't at least show up for the hearings and pretend to do your homework, then someday this could be you.DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).