Carl Levin touts his Wayne State center for good governance

Having returned to Michigan after 36 years in our nation’s capital, I am often asked how I dealt with the infighting, gridlock, and partisanship that too often overwhelms Washington, leading to chaotic government and a growing list of unsolved problems. I’m asked whether I believe Congress is broken.

I do not. My years in the U.S. Senate defy that conventional view of Congress, in part because I spent much of my time immersed in the world of oversight, wielding bipartisan tools that provided a powerful antidote to the ills that often plagued the rest of Washington. Oversight enabled me to work with Senate colleagues from both parties to analyze complex problems, develop reforms and effect real change.

Two examples involving credit cards and the financial crisis illustrate what I mean. Not too long ago, unfair credit card practices were rampant. Banks that issued credit cards were unilaterally raising interest rates on families in debt, even for those paying their debt in compliance with bank rules. Banks were charging multiple over-the-limit fees for exceeding a card limit once, and even charging interest on debt already paid.

My subcommittee launched an oversight investigation. We commissioned a report, collected examples of abuses and held hearings to confront the bank CEOs, some of whom changed their practices in response. In 2009, Congress enacted bipartisan legislation that put a stop to most of the credit card abuses we documented. It was a slam dunk for hundreds of millions of credit cardholders.

In 2008, the financial crisis hit. As the economy went into a tailspin, millions of American families lost homes and jobs. My subcommittee again launched an investigation, producing the only bipartisan report in Congress on key causes of the crisis. We showed how high-risk mortgage loans proliferated, how regulators permitted the increasing risk, how credit rating agencies characterized loan-related financial products as safe when they weren’t and how investment banks knowingly bought and sold toxic loans, some profiting hugely when the loans failed. In 2010, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Act, creating the strongest new financial protections in a generation to shield American families from predatory practices. Oversight played a key role.

These and dozens of other investigations show how oversight can produce dividends even in an otherwise dysfunctional Congress. It can analyze problems and lay the groundwork for reform. It is good government writ large. That’s why promoting effective oversight is the focus of the new Levin Center that recently began operating at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, working with a bipartisan advisory board led by well-known attorney Eugene Driker. Board members include former Senators Tom Daschle, Tom Coburn, Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe, as well as prominent leaders in law, business and the community from Michigan and Washington.

Of course, not all oversight is constructive. Joe McCarthy’s bullying tactics, unfair questions and one-sided investigations still resonate as an example of abusive congressional oversight. He chaired, by the way, the U.S. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the same one I chaired for many years while in the Senate. His actions set the standard for how not to do oversight.

The kind of oversight I support is very different. It requires an in-depth examination of specific case studies to uncover the facts behind a problem. It is relentlessly bipartisan, requiring investigators with different views to work together to dig into what happened, asking as many questions as it takes to reach consensus on key facts. That takes time – two weeks or even two months isn’t enough to build bipartisan trust and a common view of the facts – it takes much longer. Writing up the facts, holding hearings, and recommending reforms are the next steps in an effective oversight effort.

Critics scoff that Washington is incapable of in-depth, bipartisan, fact-based investigations, but our track record proves otherwise. I’ve seen it done. Our inquiries produced stronger anti-money laundering safeguards, measures to combat health care fraud, cleaner Great Lakes, and steps to stop offshore tax evasion, corruption and corporate misconduct.

The Levin Center is designed to be a catalyst for that type of action, encouraging legislative bodies at all levels – from city councils to state legislatures, Congress, and international organizations – to engage in better oversight to solve problems. Our plans include offering practical educational and training sessions taught by proven investigators, such as oversight bootcamps that teach participants how to design investigative, hearing and follow-up plans. Effective oversight techniques aren’t rocket science – most are common-sense procedures requiring fairness, persistence and patience.

The Levin Center also plans to offer courses, conferences and research to promote the value and mechanics of effective oversight, as well as internships and fellowships to build a cadre of individuals versed in oversight as a means for change.

Oversight, when done well, can improve government operations, bridge political divides and stop abuses in the public and private sectors. The Levin Center is intended to become the premier place for training, education and scholarship on fact-based, in-depth, bipartisan oversight. Its ultimate objective is to improve the quality of public policy decision-making through fact-based inquiries. We hope the Center’s work will enrich not only Detroit and Michigan, but our country as a whole.

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John S.
Thu, 06/04/2015 - 12:20pm
My colleague conducted an exhaustive study of term limits in the Michigan legislature. Among term-limited legislators, oversight was a low priority. The tenure of legislators in Michigan is too short for them to gain the kind of thorough knowledge of government policies and program operations that enable effective oversight. Further, there seem to be few incentives for term-limited legislators to engage in oversight. Another approach to improve governance--performance measurement and management--is difficult to set up, do effectively, and sustain. To be sure, the goal of the Center--better governance through more effective legislative oversight--is laudable.
Fri, 06/05/2015 - 3:23am
John, You question term limits, what is the reasoning behind that?. I am not confident that you have a true appreciation of what involves oversight, There are unnumerable orgainzation that have required [by the government and legislation requirements] oversight protocols and those that are responsible are primarily the head of the organization. In this case the primary officer/person that should be responsible is the Governor. The legislature oversight would be much like a board of directors [who seldon have an expertise in each function being reviewed], so I am not clear on why you would hold the legidlators to a different standard than an organization that the government requires internal oversight for. Having had some experience with the agencies conducting oversight direct by law I have often found those individuals not 'expert' in the programs and practices. Having had some contact with legislators [prior to term limits] they showed little interest in oversight and had little if any workable knowledge of the what they were suppose to be overseeing. Simply not liking term limits does mean that anything said against it is valid. There are a few questions I have yet to have answered by those opposed to term limits, maybe you can help. What does a legislator gain by longevity, what knowledge/expertise? Were the legislators writing the actual language of the laws before term limits [I would be interested in how many laws former Senator Leving actually wrote the language that was voted on]? How many Bills were legislators reading prior to their voting before term limits compared to now? What expertise do legislators need to have, and why isn't that include in the criteria used to qualify candidates? How may legislators prior to term limits never develop the knowledge and skills ['expertise'] that you find critical and yet stayed in office for 10, 20, 30 years? If the opponents to term limits saw that 'expertise' so critical why weren't they part of a movement to remove those legislators lacking? As for the incentives for legislators, what is the difference in those incentives for oversight then and now? The reality is that those who should have the oversight are the ones who should be developing the oversight protocol for their organization and function as they are the ones with the necessary knowledge. The oversight for government agencies should start with the Governor as he is the head of all agencies, and if you are not willing to start there that then why are you placing sole responsibility on the legislature for oversight? If oversight were truly something former Senator Levin and others were interested then they would include it in the laws they write by including a definition of the purpose in each laws, the expected results, and the metrics to be used for the performance evaluation process. They would even describe the oversight processs/protocol. Have you seen that done?
Richard W
Thu, 06/04/2015 - 2:19pm
To Carl Levin- Thank you for the Article. To John S. in the rely --- I agree with your assessment of Term Limits. Th only real term limit should be the vote. If doing a great job keep voting in...if a bad job vote them out..That term limit works very well. Maybe Bridge could start a series on the pro and cons of term limits ....and get this question before the legislators and/or the people for a vote. It appears we both agree in the value of letting the people decide the merits of legislators and not a poorly thought out law to make the choices. As noted, people doing a good job and wanting to stay will be valuable in setting up true oversights to limit or remove practices that are counter productive to our people and State.
Matt T.
Mon, 06/08/2015 - 7:07am
I agree with Richard W. Term Limit legislation, in my opinion, trumps all as the worst piece of legislation to have passed the Michigan Legislature. It stifles the ability of legislators, lobbyists, staff members, etc. to really get to know one another and build trust. It calls upon senators and representatives, to assume leadership roles they have no , or little experience, in undertaking. In the house, representatives have been given enormous responsibilities in chairing committees like the overwhelming Appropriations Committee. Or have been elected Speaker based on popularity and political trade offs. I remember Speaker Gary Owen once saying he didn't deserve being Speaker because he only had twelve years'experience.He, and others at that time, knew experience in the system, building trust with colleagues and constituents, and "working thins out" were vitally important. Even the original sponsor of the bill later turned around and spoke to make changes.. Legislators need time to get to know the system, build relationships, understand the enormity of a $50 billion plus state budget. Voters were duped into thinking "new is better." Can you imagine turning over an astronaut crew every six years? Or a team of scientists working on cancer research, or telling a brain surgeon you're done after eight years? This law ought to be repealed, not changed.
Fri, 06/05/2015 - 2:22pm
"Good governance"??? Remember Bengazi? The IRS Scandal? That $18.2-trillion in ("official") national debt, most of which was accumulated under his watch? I can very easily continue, but either Levin has a very short memory or he strongly feels that we do.
Sun, 06/07/2015 - 11:02am
Thank you Senator Levin. Your bi-partisan and thorough approach to oversight has garnered important results to serious policy questions. I'm personally and professionally delighted that the Levin Center at Wayne State University is focused on sharing that approach. I sincerely hope that those in office on both sides of the aisle will take advantage of what the Levin Center will offer. As for term limits mentioned by John S., it's sad that so many before us fought so hard to acquire the franchise, then voters chose in 1992 to limit that right. It's even sadder that the bulk of funding to win that election was from outside the state of Michigan. Our voters didn't have a chance when they were so misled. Our forefathers would weep.
Sun, 06/07/2015 - 2:01pm
Kathy, I offer that one of the largest barriers to bipartisan efforts in DC was the US Senate majority leader and I suspect that former Senator Levin voted for him and actively supported his activities in that role. It seems there has more bipartisanship since the Senator's leaving office than in the previous 6 years, that raises some concerns about his effectiveness toward bipartisanship. We regards to the amount of campaign money spent on election, it would seem that is not as much a factor as you suggest. The most recent vote in Michigan showed that even thought the winning side of the vote was out spent by 36 to 1 the voters still chose the underfunded side of the issue. I recognize that campaign spending is a hot topic, I am just not so sure that it is the determining factor that 'conventional wisdom' makes it out to be. As this February vote seem to show with all the spending and all the political support oneside recieved the voters seem to make their own choice independent of all that money and highly visible proponents.
Sun, 06/07/2015 - 4:31pm
Unbiased research is helpful to see the full picture. The information in the oversight committee public records and the bipartisanship that took place to advance public policy speaks for itself.
Sun, 06/07/2015 - 11:23pm
Kathy, I must apologize, is there a link to that reference information. My skepticism is a barrier to accepting the obvious. Science has taught me to questions findings especially when they are what you want to hear. I have learned how a question is frame and the context the information is gathered in can significantly influence a report findings so such reports should be scrutinized before being accepted.