Although Claire Leavitt has always held a keen interest in politics, it was only toward the end of her undergraduate degree that she began envisioning a career in the sector. “I was a history major as an undergraduate and did not even take a single politics course in college. I did, however, apply for an internship at a senator’s office during the summer of my junior year, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Capitol Hill.” After completing her undergraduate degree, Leavitt worked for three years as a journalist in Washington, DC, as well as for several not-for-profit organizations abroad before deciding to specialize in American politics.
Leavitt mainly applied to Cornell for her PhD in Government due to its reputation, which she identifies as qualitative research and an interdisciplinary approach to the study of politics. According to Leavitt, Cornell’s department really encourages students to concentrate on the big questions. “Students here are encouraged to go beyond the numbers and focus on the broad dysfunctionalities present in America’s political structure,” she says. “I felt that I wouldn’t be hemmed in by predetermined norms here, and that’s the kind of scholar I aspire to be.”
Where Has the Rigor in Congressional Oversight Gone?
Currently in the third year of her degree, Leavitt has formulated the framework of her dissertation and will draft a prospectus for her project over the winter of 2018. Her dissertation highlights the steady qualitative decline of rigorous executive oversight in the American Congress, a trend she says has been continuing since Nixon’s presidency in the 1970s. “After formulating legislation, executive oversight comprises the Congress’ most important administrative responsibility. The consensus amongst scholars, however, is that the quality and effect of oversight has worsened over the decades.”
The ambit for congressional oversight has, in fact, expanded over time, owing mainly to measures such as the consolidation of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Every congressman can now request reports from the GAO to analyze an administrative institution. All Congressional committees also have been recently afforded the authority to subpoena individuals and institutions. Despite these measures, Leavitt argues that there has been a pronounced shift of the onus for oversight away from the Congress and toward executive bodies. “Much of high-profile oversight is no longer conducted by the Congress; the Justice Department and other executive agencies now assume responsibility for the majority of investigations into executive affairs.”
Leavitt concludes that Congress has lost its place as the primary driver of oversight activities. She contends that the increasingly partisan nature of American politics has resulted in a lack of cooperation between the two major parties, regarding congressional activities. This has resulted in ineffective investigations, hampered by an increased focus on point-scoring politics instead of actual investigative effort.
The Government Accountability Office and Direct Interviews with Congresspeople, as Research Tools
Leavitt plans to utilize the GAO’s problem identification metric, among other methods, to determine the quality of congressional oversight. “The GAO is an autonomous body and is a thoroughly nonpartisan agency; it’s about as unbiased as you can get in DC. If the GAO identifies an issue, we can be sure it needs addressing.” The GAO’s biennial “High-Risk Reports” identify the most pressing executive agency issues in need of congressional oversight, and the number of problems identified on the list has ballooned from 14 in 1990 to 34 in 2017. This increase clearly demonstrates that Congress isn’t placing enough emphasis on important issues. “If Congress is spending more time on politicized matters such as the Benghazi hearings than it is on problems identified by the GAO, it shows that high-quality investigation has been replaced by bad oversight—meaning politicized or ripe for member position-taking.”
Leavitt has outlined three methods for conducting research on oversight. First, she plans to engage directly with members of Congress, a research method she says is greatly undervalued among today’s scholars. “Many scholars today tend to solely focus on empirical research and look exclusively at voting patterns and other quantitative indicators, but I feel that by talking directly to members, I will be going straight to the source and be able to better understand their views of the issues.”
Leavitt plans to apply for a fellowship at the Unites States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the main investigative committee in the United States House of Representatives. “I’d love to do a six-month fellowship in either the majority or the minority office of the committee and understand the investigative process from a firsthand perspective.”
“The constitution can only protect us, if we believe it should; the constitutional legitimacy of the Congress is at stake here.”
Additionally, Leavitt is interested in tracing the evolution of oversight since the founding of the republic. She will be frequently visiting the Library of Congress, among other archives, to collect data to this end during her time in the Capital.
Leavitt contends that the qualitative decline in oversight is a significant contributing element to the continual loss of public faith in Congress. “People expect Congress to conduct oversight despite its increasingly partisan nature, and its failure to do so vindicates the fear that the executive has become excessively empowered at the expense of the Congress. The constitution can only protect us, if we believe it should; the constitutional legitimacy of the Congress is at stake here.”
Expanding the Graduate Research Experience
Leavitt met Suzanne Mettler, her PhD adviser, while visiting Cornell as a prospective student and found her instantly supportive of the work she wanted to do. “Moreover,” she says, “she’s an institutionalist. She goes beyond parochial elements and always tries to figure out the bigger picture, and I constantly strive to incorporate her gestalt approach in my research.” At the beginning of her second year, Leavitt co-wrote a book chapter on outdated congressional policies with Mettler, which they co-presented at a conference at Princeton University.
Beyond her dissertation, Leavitt has worked as a teaching assistant for several government classes. She loves interacting with younger students and discussing political theories— particularly how they relate to current events. Leavitt also participates in the Prison Education Program, for which she travels to a local prison to teach a three-hour class on American politics every week. Although she admits that the teaching itself is made difficult by factors such as the lack of visual aids, which aren’t permitted in the class, she contends that the restrictions have improved her teaching skills by forcing her to comprehensively deconstruct political concepts. “I hate the way universities are often sneered at in popular culture across America today. I’m a great believer in the value of a liberal arts education, and I believe it should be a necessary element of everybody’s education, especially those of underserved populations like prisoners.”
Leavitt plans to continue fulfilling her passion for research, alongside teaching in the future and would ideally like to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at a research university following her degree. “I love the gray areas of scholarship, where research is indefinite, and I can make my own discoveries.”