There's something moving on Capitol Hill.
It's not immigration reform, trudging slowly along some immeasurable timeline, and it can't be gun legislation: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shelved debate on that issue last month, after the chamber voted down an expansion on background checks - the one item gun control advocates predicted would go through without a hitch. And the federal budget continues to maneuver almost entirely on a deadline-to-deadline basis.
But while pundits grieve that the 113th Congress is fast living up to the gridlock-laden, "do-nothing" reputation of the 112th, ongoing "scandals" and "cover-ups" offer to cast new light on the body's effectiveness. With several oversight hearings on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya under their belts, and at least one on tap to examine reports that the Internal Revenue Service last year singled out tea party groups for excessive review, are lawmakers finding their stride as government watchdogs?
"Definitely not," said Norm Ornstein, congressional scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Adding that while "certainly I suppose it's good that they're doing something now after spending months doing nothing," Ornstein argued that "the proper role for Congress as a watchdog" involves looking ahead, rather than looking back - "making sure we do everything we can to prevent another Benghazi from happening," he said, instead of spending months "scandal-mongering."
The House Oversight Committee last week heard testimony from three "whistleblowers" who alleged some within the administration ignored requests for additional security at the U.S. consulate targeted in the strike, and then deliberately misled the public as to whether extremists were at the helm. A hearing before a Senate committee in January starred then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who this week was accused to trying to cut out the State Department's counterterrorism unit from communications about the attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Scene two is slated to open Friday, when the House Ways and Means Committee will examine the IRS's admittedly "inappropriate" practice of singling out groups featuring in their names keywords like "Tea Party," "Patriot" and "9/12 Project," for heightened, typically burdensome scrutiny over their tax-exempt statuses.
But the hearings, Ornstein said, "are not Congress finding its legs, saying, 'Oh, maybe we can be the watchdog;' this is Congress trying to distract from its failures in policy by jumping up and down all over a couple of purported scandals that, yes, have some serious elements to deal with, but they don't offer an excuse for not legislating, and they're not a substitute for real oversight."
Former Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., who served in the House for two decades from 1977 to 1997, agreed that the problem with oversight hearings is "they always look backward rather than forward - going back to mistakes or programmatic difficulties they had run into." But, he pointed out: "It's an area where Congress can be helpful, and it's a role that this particular Congress can step up to easier than it can pass legislation."
That Congress has taken up oversight hearings "could actually be a good thing," Walker told CBSNews.com. "It gives committees some sense of their own worth and power - that they can actually accomplish something real - and it gives them an opportunity to get back to regular order in the legislative process. The problem has become that major legislation is written behind closed doors in leadership offices and then run out onto the floor without much committee input at all.
"...Oversight involves a vastly more open process: Members from both sides have the opportunity to voice their viewpoint," Walker continued. "During the Benghazi hearings, Democrats certainly had their own view of the world, and their own script that they were playing from. But unlike the current legislative process, where you limit the debate very severely and the country doesn't get to see the give and take, in these hearings the country very much has a chance to see the give and take."
Walker said that while he's "not so certain" a legislative product will come out of the Benghazi hearings, the IRS review could inspire a "bipartisan desire to make certain that the IRS cannot specifically profile or target people they don't happen to agree with.
"I expect there will be some legislative proposals that come out of these IRS hearings," he said, "and again, it's a good thing - it's what members of Congress were hired to do."