With their fragile one-seat majority, the newly ascendant Senate Democrats may still struggle to pass their legislative agenda, but they now have a significant political advantage: the power to launch investigations and hold hearings.
After spending six long years in the minority, Democratic committee chairmen are now rushing to spotlight the issues that are most important to them - and to draw attention to what they see as political weaknesses of President Bush and the Republicans.
This week, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, will hold hearings on the high cost of electricity. Other upcoming hearings will probe some of the more contentious aspects of the Bush agenda, from the plan for a national missile defense to the lifting of limits on arsenic levels in drinking water. Democrats are even delving back into investigations of the Florida recount - an issue many Republicans are loath to revisit.
The strategy could backfire. As Republican lawmakers discovered during the Clinton years, hearings can alienate the public if they are perceived as unfair. Moreover, Mr. Bush will still have the louder megaphone of the presidential bully pulpit.
Still, experts say, if Democrats focus their attacks and manage to provide a steady stream of sound bites on the evening news, they could have a potent weapon with which to combat Bush's agenda and sway public opinion going into the 2002 midterm elections.
"It's going to be important for Democratic chairmen to focus on substantive matters, not go on witch hunts," says Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution here. But, he says, if they keep the topics issues-based, the hearings could have a significant impact - particularly in areas where Bush has been dominating the debate, such as missile defense. "To have the Foreign Relations Committee calling witnesses challenging the assumptions made by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell is very powerful."
Only a small number of congressional hearings - such as the Watergate hearings or those leading up to President Clinton's impeachment - have managed to captivate the entire nation. The hearings currently planned by the Democrats are unlikely to attract that kind of notice, but they could still generate publicity. Democrats have chosen topics - such as the high cost of energy - that hit close to home for members of the public and are likely to attract media coverage for that reason.
On Wednesday, Senator Lieberman begins hearings on electricity deregulation in California and on whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is adequately carrying out its duty to ensure fair prices to consumers. The purpose of the hearings, Lieberman said, is to make the case for price caps, which he supports and the president does not. Recent polls show that the majority of Californians are also in favor of price caps.
Lieberman said he does not intend for the hearings to be used for the purpose of political attack. "I reject the idea of wasting taxpayer dollars on investigations aimed at no more than political retribution," he said last week. "I will refuse to allow oversight to become overkill." However, he also admitted that the definition of overkill is "in the eyes of the beholder."
Hitting Republicans' weak spots
Clearly, Democrats believe Republicans are vulnerable on the energy issue. In addition to the Lieberman hearings, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plans to investigate gasoline prices.
If the energy problem continues to escalate and the Bush administration is seen as unwilling to respond, analysts say it could have a significant impact on the 2002 elections - particularly in California.
"This is part of the reason that the president finally got out here, because the Republicans in the state were screaming at him," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Every incumbent is vulnerable if they don't get this resolved."
Of course, not only could the issue prove damaging to Republicans, but it also may help Lieberman raise his own profile in preparation for a possible White House run in 2004. "Part of this is Lieberman's testing the waters," says Ms. Jeffe. "It makes sense on his part."
Lieberman has also promised to investigate the Bush administration's rollback of environmental and other regulations, including the decision to lift limits on arsenic in drinking water - one of the administration's biggest PR disasters.
Florida ballots, revisited
Another major area the Democrats are poised to investigate is election reform. After last week's release of a controversial US Civil Rights Commission report detailing the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters in Florida, Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, announced he would hold hearings. It is "important to hear directly from the people of Florida or other places around the country that were disenfranchised, to hear about this problem first hand," he said.
Although Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), the former chairman of the committee, has already held hearings on election reform and proposed a bill, Senator Dodd is pushing more stringent legislation that would require states to meet uniform voting and technology standards by 2004.
Dodd's announcement was met unenthusiastically by Senator McConnell, who has indicated that Dodd will face resistance to the measure.
"He's worried Dodd will use the Civil Rights Commission report as a platform for nailing down and giving visibility to the Florida problems," says Mr. Mann of Brookings.
Beyond the Senate
The increased attention given to election reform is likely to impact the House as well. Rep. Maxine Waters of California has been heading an election-reform committee organized by the Democratic Caucus ("because we couldn't get cooperation from the Republicans," she says). And while she says the issue has been moving along with some success, she sees it getting a big boost now that Democrats control the Senate: "Now it takes on added importance," she says.
Indeed, she's optimistic that legislation will pass. "The Republicans - even though they're a little bit frightened by the issue - can't be caught looking as if they're trying to block credible reform," she says. "Out there with the public, it's not a Democratic or Republican issue."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor