Congress struggles to ramp up oversight

Its efforts to challenge powers claimed by the executive branch are faltering on partisan lines.

Forty-four months after authorizing the use of force in Iraq, the House Thursday opened the floor to its first day-long debate about the war. A key theme: Keeping the White House accountable.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate voted Wednesday to pay for future war costs through the regular budget process, rather than through "emergency" spending bills. It's a move lawmakers say will increase congressional oversight of the war.

At the same time, a Senate panel will grapple next week with how to oversee the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless surveillance of communication between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad.

The moves signal that Congress is trying – again – to revive its flagging oversight role of an executive branch that is claiming broad wartime powers. It's doing so, analysts say, because control of Congress in this fall's midterm elections could turn on the issue.

"The broader motivation in Congress by the majority party is clearly the sinking political fortunes of the president and the party and the fear of retribution in November," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington.

So far, however, both chambers of Congress have struggled to make headway. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, for example, has repeatedly been stymied in his bid to bring the government's secret eavesdropping program in line with the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee he chairs postponed the consideration of four versions of legislation to require more oversight. The Senate Intelligence Committee is developing its own plan to strengthen supervision of the NSA program. "Congress's ability to conduct effective oversight depends on what political price the president has to pay for resisting congressional scrutiny," wrote Senator Specter, in an opinion piece Thursday.

So far, that price has not been high. And this week, one of the few congressional committees that had been cruising on a bipartisan basis stalled out on party lines over the issue of congressional oversight.

Last week, Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee called on Chairman Duncan Hunter (R) of California to reestablish the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which traditionally led probes of the Pentagon. Republicans did away with that panel when they took back the House in 1995.

"At the end of [Thursday's] debate, we are still going to be left with a House Armed Services Committee that is not doing the kind of oversight ... as has been done in past wars and past Congresses, regardless of what administration is in power," said Rep. Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts at a press conference on Wednesday.

Inertia has been strongest on the highest- profile investigations. Nearly two years after promising a report on whether the prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was politically manipulated, the Senate intelligence panel is still gridlocked over the terms of completing the investigation.

"[Democrats] keep moving the goal posts and asking for more information," says Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence. In comments off the floor of the Senate, he said he expected the report to be completed by mid-July.

Senate Democrats, who can't offer any detail on the panel's secret work, say the Republicans are dragging their feet. "It's like the marquee on an old movie house that always reads: 'Coming soon'," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence committee. "It's critically important that this be wrapped up quickly."

Some observers see the low level of supervision as a function of partisan deference. Republicans are "afraid if you do look at anything out there, it could prove embarrassing," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

But history suggests that one party's dominance need not preclude meaningful oversight. Nine months after German tanks rolled into Paris, the junior senator from Missouri called for a probe of the US buildup in World War II to "head off scandals before they started."

The Truman Committee, created at a time when Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, set the gold standard for congressional investigations – and gave Harry Truman a leg up to the presidency. Between 1941 and 1948, this panel held 432 public hearings and 300 executive sessions, and is credited with saving the government billions of dollars.

"Presidents are well served by a Congress that aggressively but responsibly pursues its oversight responsibilities. It helps keep them from making mistakes and helps administrations make corrections in a more timely fashion," says Mr. Mann.

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