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Democrats unrelenting in oversight of Bush administration

With elections ahead, Congress is expected to keep spotlight on alleged misdeeds.

By / August 6, 2008

Under the scanner: EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was sworn in on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24, prior to testifying on the refusal of California's request to limit greenhouse gases.

Dennis Cook/AP

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Washington - The Democratic-led Congress appears intent on using its oversight powers to investigate the Bush administration until the day the latter packs up and walks out of the White House.

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Oversight hearings and reports have been as common as lobbyists on Capitol Hill since the Democrats swept the 2006 elections. In July alone, hearings covered a range of subjects including allegations of faulty wiring installed by US contractors in Iraq, possibly misleading testimony from Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Stephen Johnson, and charges that politics guided hiring of career workers in the Justice Department.

White House officials consider the scrutiny a burden and a waste of legislative time.

"When you have divided party government, you have more vigorous oversight," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

With Election Day only three months away there's little time left for the lame-duck Congress to push for substantive changes in response to the lame-duck Bush administration's alleged misdeeds.

Take the issue of executive privilege. Democratic congressional leaders investigating the mass firing of US attorneys in 2006 have long demanded that former political aide Karl Rove and other Bush officials testify before Congress. But they've refused to appear, citing executive privilege – the legal doctrine that holds a president is entitled to keep conversations with staff private, in order to promote candor.

On July 30, a federal judge rejected the White House's claim that executive aides have immunity from congressional oversight. But the legal wrangling on this issue is likely to stretch on well past election day. It remains to be seen whether the next Congress will care to pursue this issue once Bush himself is out of office.

On executive privilege "Congress has not been that successful," says Mr. Thurber.

What oversight can achieve

The purpose of congressional oversight is not necessarily legal change, however. This counterpart of Congress's legislative powers is also meant to reveal problems and ensure the exercise of constitutional responsibility on the part of the executive branch.