Monday, March 19, 2007

Bringing On The Oversight

Before last November's midterm elections, I was hoping Democrats would win back the House and the Senate NOT because I thought a Democratic Congress would be able to pass progressive legislation that would become the law of the land (indeed, I figured a slim majority in the Senate and an intractable preznut in the White House would essentially kill any of that), but because I wanted the administration to have some oversight for the first time in six years.

I also wanted a Democratic majority to be able to set some of the agenda for the nightly news broadcasts after years of Congressional Republicans all-but-ignoring the corruption and incompetence their fellow Repubs in the Congress and the administration.

When Dems hold hearings on the malfeasance, corruption, and incompetence the Bushies and their allies have been engaging in for the last six years, it makes news.

For years, the Rubber Stamp Republican Congress, working in concert with the corrupt administration, made sure there were no hearings that would provide negative news for the Bushies.

In fact, Representative Tom Davis, the top Republican on the oversight and government reform committee, admits that the Republican Congress was not too hard on the administration for the last six years, saying "There is this tendency to think that your political welfare is tied up with the president and you don't want to make him look bad...This is an administration that has had it pretty easy."

But not anymore:

WASHINGTON — One day last week, the entire Federal Communications Commission was summoned for the first time in three years before a House committee, where its members were grilled for five hours and told to expect to be "frequent guests."

On another day, Congress authorized subpoenas for Justice Department officials in its escalating investigation into the murky reasons offered by the Bush administration for its decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys.

And on yet another day, former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame was the star witness at a hearing where she accused White House officials of "recklessly" blowing her cover and destroying her career.

Less than three months since they took control of Capitol Hill, Democrats in both chambers have cranked the powerful congressional oversight machinery into overdrive.

In addition to the headline-hogging investigations, Democrats have launched probes into a wide range of less glamorous subjects, including the FDA's efforts to protect the food supply, the way federal agencies monitor energy markets and whether the White House sought to muzzle federal climate scientists who uncovered evidence of global warming.

When Democrats won both houses of Congress in November, they promised vigorous oversight in addition to an ambitious legislative agenda. So far, they appear to be accomplishing more through oversight. None of the bills that were part of the party's 100-hour spree has yet emerged from Congress. And with their razor-thin margin in the Senate, Democrats cannot count on passing any legislation that most Republicans oppose.

But Republicans can do little to stop the investigative juggernaut.

"The Democrats' most powerful weapons aren't legislative bills, but subpoenas and hearings," said John J. Pitney Jr., a former Republican staffer who is a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, neatly illustrated this dynamic in a recent letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

He wrote to ask why President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address had cited a discredited claim that Iraq was seeking uranium. Waxman noted that Rice had ignored all but five of the 16 letters he had sent over the last five years when his party was in the minority. Then, he pointed out: "I am renewing my request as the chairman of the chief oversight committee in the U.S. House of Representatives."

In that one sentence, Waxman captured one of the most significant changes on Capitol Hill. Now that they have the gavels and subpoena power, the Democrats can no longer be so easily brushed off.

The U.S. attorney purge investigation, the Walter Reed scandal investigation, the Plame hearing (in which we learned that Valerie Plame Wilson, contrary to Republican talking points, was INDEED a covert agent) - not one of these investigations and/or hearings would have seen the light of day had Repubs maintained control of Congress. And now, for the first time in the history of GWB 43, people in the government are being held accountable and fired:

Democrats have taken their oversight responsibilities to heart. They added the word "oversight" to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and reestablished disbanded investigative subcommittees.

In the first two months of this year, they called on staff from the GAO to testify 47 times on Capitol Hill, three times as often as in the first two months of last year. And they say they have already held more than 100 oversight hearings.

"In just the last three weeks, more people were forced out of their jobs than the entire prior six years under this administration, because a new Congress that had the byword of accountability, accountability, accountability changed the way business was done in Washington," Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said last week.

It's about time.

And as the accountability and oversight go forward, we are going to see more resignations, more firings and more criminal investigations of an administration and its party enablers who for years thought "We run everything...we can do what we want and never worry about being caught."

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