Congress girds up for return to oversight

Probes include alleged contracting abuses in Iraq and the alteration of scientific findings.

Not since the Depression-era Congress of 1932 has Capitol Hill ramped up so quickly for oversight hearings and related legislation – most targeting the Bush administration.

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are hiring more lawyers, and watchdog groups say they are swamped with calls from committee staff asking for advice on pursuing the nearly lost art of congressional investigation.

In its first 100 days, the new Congress launched probes on allegations ranging from contracting abuses in Iraq and the alteration of scientific findings to the misuse of federal resources for partisan purposes. Some hearings, such as those on last year's firing of eight US attorneys, were snatched from the headlines; others are longer-term campaigns to try to uncover any government waste and to expand the public's access to how government conducts its business.

"There's a whole culture of effective oversight, which the Congress carried out in the 1970s up through the early 1990s, that has been very much lost, and there's a lot of effort now going on to rebuild oversight skills," says Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former deputy House counsel.

On Wednesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee is set to convene a hearing on what it calls the "improper use of National Security Letters by the FBI." The full Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is preparing for an April 17 showdown with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over alleged misstatements to Congress about why the US attorneys were dismissed.

On the House side, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee (formerly the Government Reform Committee) has held 17 hearings since Jan. 30 on issues ranging from alleged waste, fraud, abuse, and government secrecy. It is also looking into reports of improper political interference into the Justice Department's recent case against the tobacco industry.

Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chairs this committee, called on the Republican National Committee to provide by April 18 copies of any e-mails sent or received by presidential adviser Karl Rove or any other White House official concerning the use of federal agencies or resources to help Republican candidates in the 2008 election. Mr. Waxman wants to know, in particular, why a White House aide briefed political appointees at the General Services Administration (GSA) about the GOP's top Democratic targets in state and local elections. He cites reports that after the briefing, GOP political appointees discussed how to use the GSA to help "our candidates" in '08. The GSA is responsible for US government facilities in every congressional district.

In addition to the furious pace of investigatory hearings, the new Congress is also beefing up its oversight capabilities. In January, House Democrats created four new subcommittees whose mandate is oversight. They include the Oversight and Investigations panel within the House Armed Services Committee, which Republicans had abolished, as well as new oversight subcommittees within the Appropriations, Science and Technology, and Small Business committees.

Individual lawmakers, too, are hiring more investigators on their personal staffs. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, just hired three top investigators, aides say.

The House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, has asked for approval to hire outside investigative attorneys to expand its capacity to review documents related to the prosecutor dismissals. Commenting on this request, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel says President Bush "opposes using $275,000 of taxpayers' money to increase the number of lawyers who can go on investigative searches and fishing expeditions."

In its first 100 days, the House also approved five bills – with veto-proof majorities – that extend whistle-blower protections to employees of federal contractors and that give the public greater access to government-held information.

One bill, which the Bush administration says it "can't support," requires a response within 20 days to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Another, the Accountability in Contracting Act, mandates disclosure of no-bid contracts and contractor overcharges. It cleared the House with the support of all Democrats and 119 Republicans but the White House, citing "burdensome statutory requirements," opposes it.

Despite a presidential veto threat, 104 House Republicans joined all Democrats in overturning a 2001 executive order that allows presidents and vice presidents to decide which presidential records will stay sealed. All but 34 Republicans also backed a bill requiring disclosure of all who donate $200 or more to presidential libraries.

"Chances are better than even that these bills will become law," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy and a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

"Oversight does not have to be sensationalistic. It's a routine function that needs to be performed every day. There is no reason for it to be rude, even if it is aggressive," he adds. "For public-interest groups like mine, there's now someone to talk to in a way there hasn't been in recent years."

The move to improve congressional oversight isn't coming only from the newly empowered Democratic majority. "We're getting inundated with calls from staff across the Hill, asking for advice and training," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. "It is not just Democrats. The Democrats took over, but what that has done is give a sense of freedom to Republicans who are inclined to conduct oversight."

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