New Congress to toughen oversight
With their spending powers limited, Democrats aim to keep tabs on issues from Iraq to consumer protection.
WASHINGTON — With little prospect of funding bold spending initiatives, Democrats poised to take control of the 110th Congress are reviving the ability to investigate the executive branch.
With more workdays in Washington and the creation of subcommittees charged exclusively with investigation, Democratic leaders and new committee chairs aim to jump-start oversight on issues ranging from the Iraq war to homeland security and consumer protection.
But in a consistent disclaimer, they say the new probes will not be motivated by a spirit of revenge. And they will be conducted, to the extent possible, on a bipartisan basis.
This approach, Democrats say, rejects the example of Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, who, as chair of the House Government Reform Committee, paved the Clinton presidency with subpoenas. As early as May 2006, Nancy Pelosi also denied speculation that Democrats would try to impeach the president.
Democrats say they will not use their new powers to conduct a witch hunt on the Bush presidency, and will take a more careful tack instead.
To give committees the time for thorough investigations, Democrats say they will move to a five-day workweek on Capitol Hill. In contrast, under Republican control, the typical House workweek lasted from Tuesday evening to Thursday afternoon.
"We are going to provide the time for committees to do oversight of the executive department and of the way the people's money is being spent and the effectiveness of the policy implementation of the president," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer.
But that time – and the eagerness of new committee chairs – also poses dilemmas for the new Democratic leadership over how to aggressively question administration officials, without distracting them from their work fighting wars and securing the homeland.
"The problem is not that any one committee or subcommittee will suffer an excessive zeal of investigation. The problem is there is so much of it. And so much of it is directed at Iraq that it might become a distraction to people whose job it is to fight the war," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Even if no one committee chair takes on the scope of investigation that occurred during former GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy's assault on alleged communists in government, the volume of appearances before congressional committees for key administration officials could have a demoralizing impact.
In the new Congress, some of the most powerful critics of the Bush administration's conduct during the Iraq war will move into committee chairmanships.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who opposed the decision to go into Iraq, is developing hearings on a phased withdrawal of forces from Iraq. In June, Senator Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island proposed a non-binding amendment calling for US forces to begin a phrased withdrawal from Iraq in 2006. He is also planning probes into waste and abuse in contracting.
On the House side, Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, has set as a top priority for the House Armed Services committee the "fixing of US forces." "They're stretched and strained, and I'm convinced the Army and the Marines are near the breaking point," he said in a press briefing on Tuesday.
As chairman, he is also opposing any move to send 20,000 to 30,000 more forces into Iraq, a move he says will only "exacerbate the situation."
But both new chairmen say they are not prepared to resort to the ultimate congressional sanction on a commander-in-chief with whom they disagree: to cut off funding for the war.
Instead, Skelton is reviving his panel's Oversight Investigations Subcommittee, which was axed by Republicans when they took over control of the House in 1995. The new panel, he says, will focus on asking "the tough questions: Why did this happen? Why did you make a decision to do this or that?"
"That does influence behavior," he says. "It's a very solid tool that Congress has not been using."
With control of the Senate capable of flipping with a single senator, few members have as much independence as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, the new chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
After losing the Democratic primary, Senator Lieberman won as an independent. He enjoys an unusually strong working relationship with the outgoing chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. Together, they pushed for the creation of the 9/11 Commission. In the new Congress, the committee will first take up new legislation to implement some of the remaining 9/11 recommendations and to review those that were not implemented well.
"Not enough oversight has taken place of the Department of Homeland Security. This is a relatively new organization, but faces a multitude of management challenges. The senator will be very closely focusing on how the different agencies within DHS integrate with each other," says Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips.
Other issues that are likely to come up early on include the level of preparedness for a bioterrorist attack.
While the Republican-led Congress issued not one subpoena, Democrats say they will use that power more aggressively. Senators Lieberman and Collins disagreed over whether subpoenas should be issued over the federal government's response to hurricane Katrina. The next time such an issue comes up, he makes the call.
Despite a strong recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that Congress drastically streamline its oversight for intelligence – leaders of the Department of Homeland Security now appear before 88 committees and subcommittees, the panel reported – neither the House nor the Senate is prepared to take up the turf battles necessary to change this.
But citing recommendations of the 9/11 panel, House Democrats are proposing a new Select Intelligence Oversight Panel within the House Appropriations Committee. It's a move they say will "strengthen the oversight process" by considering intelligence funding from the combined perspective of the Appropriations and Intelligence Committees.
Democrats have lined up some of their sharpest investigators on panels relating to the economy. The incoming chair of the Government Reform Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California directed landmark hearings on the tobacco industry and, more recently, produced his own investigations on no-bid contracts in Iraq. He has also peppered the Bush administration with questions on its response to hurricane Katrina and the cost of prescription drugs.
Aides say he has yet to set priorities for the 110th Congress, but is ideally positioned to develop probes on all these fronts. Waxman says he prefers to avoid subpoenas, and that voluntary appearances are better.
As chair of the House Banking Committee, Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts is moving consumer protection back onto the legislative agenda. Look for hearings on issues such as predatory lending and data privacy. But in a forum on Dec. 11, he cautioned that "excessive regulation or ineffective regulation is bad for regulation. The market does need some corrections, but if you overdo it, then you weaken your case, he said.