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Thread: What Good Is Congress?

  1. #1
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    What Good Is Congress?

    Congress reduces its oversight role
    Since Clinton, a change in focus

    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/wa...versight_role/

    By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff | November 20, 2005

    WASHINGTON -- Back in the mid-1990s, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, aggressively delving into alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration, logged 140 hours of sworn testimony into whether former president Bill Clinton had used the White House Christmas card list to identify potential Democratic donors.

    In the past two years, a House committee has managed to take only 12 hours of sworn testimony about the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

    The jarring comparison reflects the way Congress has conducted its oversight role during the GOP's era of one-party rule in Washington.

    While congressional committees once were leaders in investigating the executive branch and powerful industries, the current Congress has largely spared major corporations and has done only minimal oversight of the Republican administration, according to a review of congressional documents by The Boston Globe.

    An examination of committees' own reports found that the House Government Reform Committee held just 37 hearings described as ''oversight" or investigative in nature during the last Congress, down from 135 such hearings held by its predecessor, the House Government Operations Committee, in 1993-94, the last year the Democrats controlled the chamber.

    Party loyalty does not account for the difference: In 1993-94, the Democrats were investigating a Democratic administration.

    Representative Tom Davis, the current chairman of the Government Reform Committee, the chamber's chief watchdog for government waste and abuse, said his panel had not abdicated its oversight role, which many consider critical to the separation of powers in government.

    ''What aren't we doing? We aren't going after the mini scandal du jour, to try to embarrass the administration on a hearing that's going nowhere," said Davis, Republican of Virginia.

    Across the House, panels that once aggressively scrutinized the workings of the government are now restricting themselves largely to subjects that advance a particular goal or a cause favored by the GOP leadership, such as recent oversight hearings on the benefits of having social services provided by faith-based organizations and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

    The House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose Reagan administration-era investigation into reports of mismanagement at the Environmental Protection Agency led to the resignation of the EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, has also become far less aggressive in its investigations of energy interests and the administration.

    In 1993-1994, under the chairmanship of Democrat John D. Dingell of Michigan, the panel's oversight efforts accounted for 117 pages in its activities report for the session, compared with 24 pages in the last Congress. The committee in 1993-1994 held 153 investigative hearings, compared with 129 during 2003-2004, and the more recent hearings have not targeted the Bush administration.

    Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who is now chairman of the Republican panel, said it was natural that opposing Democrats would want to be tougher on the Bush administration, as he said the GOP was on Clinton. But he acknowledged that ''Republicans in general have not emphasized oversight in the way that Mr. Dingell did."

    At a time when the Bush administration is under scrutiny from a special counsel inquiry, the lack of action by Congress appears to be especially striking. Senate Democrats invoked an obscure rule to force the body into a closed session and embarrass the Republicans into jump-starting an investigation into accusations that pre-Iraq War intelligence had been politicized.

    ''I'm not sure they're stepping up to the plate on the more pressing issues of the time," former representative William F. Clinger, a Pennsylvania Republican, said of his party's leaders.

    When the GOP was in the minority, Clinger fought unsuccessfully to reserve the panel's chairmanship for the party opposite of the sitting president, to encourage more aggressive oversight. The proposal was opposed by the Democrats, and was dropped by the GOP once it took over control of the House.

    ''Congress has enormous power and it does nothing," said Frank Silbey, a former investigator for the Senate Labor Committee under both parties. ''It is absolutely the worst situation I have ever seen in my life. Congress shows no inclination to expand the public's right to know. That's one of the reasons for government oversight."

    Controversies such as the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, abuses at US detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, and the revealing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's name have gone largely unscrutinized on Capitol Hill.

    Instead, congressional committees have directed oversight at such topics as steroid abuses in sports and ''diploma mill" universities -- topics critics say are worthy, but which do not fulfill Congress's responsibility to be a check on the executive branch.

    Further, some of the recent hearings defined as oversight by panel leadership in fact served to advance a Bush administration agenda. In addition to the hearings into faith-based service providers and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, House and Senate panels have sought to expose the dangers of buying imported or pharmaceuticals sold on the Internet, buttressing a Republican and drug-industry position that Americans should not be permitted to buy cut-rate prescription drugs outside the United States.

    Davis said the inquiry topics were worthy, and noted that the committee agenda -- which must be spelled out at the start of each session -- had been approved unanimously by the committee, including Democrats on the panel.

    But the agenda was different during the Clinton administration. The government reform panel alone, for example, issued 1,052 subpoenas related to investigations of the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee from 1997 to 2002, and only 11 subpoenas related to allegations of Republican abuse.

    The panel received more than 2 million pages of documents and heard from 44 Clinton administration officials, including two White House chiefs of staff, according to statistics culled by Democratic staff on the Government Reform Committee.

    The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has found that from October 1996 to March 1998 -- well before the impeachment hearings -- the Clinton White House staff had spent more than 55,000 hours responding to more than 300 congressional requests, and had produced hundreds of video and audio tapes, along with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, to congressional investigators.

    ''When Clinton was in office, there wasn't an issue too small to hold a hearing on and embarrass the Democrats," said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee. ''Now, there isn't a scandal big enough to ignore."
    Lawmakers in both parties said that the oversight process has become very partisan.

    Investigative staffs that once worked together on inquiries now operate separately, and the two parties have battled over the access to documents, the witnesses to call, and the matters to investigate.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the Energy and Commerce Committee was one of the most feared investigatory committees in Congress, conducting hearings into such matters as climate change, misuse of military funds, and mismanagement of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. The latter inquiry forced the resignation of two EPA officials and the conviction of one on perjury charges.

    An inquiry into enforcement of laws against environmental crimes continued into the Clinton administration, and the panel, under Dingell, did not spare its party's president, chastising the Clinton Justice Department for being uncooperative in the investigation.

    ''We believed we had something to do, to [assure] that public money was being spent appropriately, that laws were being enforced, and we did. Our country was better for it," Dingell said. But now, ''everything seems to be run out of the White House."

    The Energy and Commerce panel has not conducted aggressive inquiries into powerful industries under its jurisdiction such as oil, gas, and tobacco companies, Dingell and others have said.

    Nor has the panel done a comprehensive inquiry into Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which played a critical role in giving tax breaks to a number of oil, gas, and nuclear companies.

    Government watchdogs want to know how much influence the industry had in developing the legislation.

    Meanwhile, Republican leaders are reported to have hindered the Democrats' efforts to investigate Bush administration activities, and have balked at giving the Democrats a room in which they can interview witnesses.

    Republican leaders are also seeking to reverse a law that allows any group of seven House members to demand documents without the approval of the majority party.

    Since the minority party does not have subpoena power, the law is one of the few tools Democrats have to influence investigations.

    Government watchdog groups say that just a few lawmakers -- Republican senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and John McCain of Arizona, and Waxman, Government Reform's senior Democrat -- have pushed for investigations of politically sensitive issues. Grassley took on both the pharmaceutical lobby and the Bush administration when he held hearings on prescription drug safety and the FDA's relationship with the companies that manufacture them.

    McCain, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has led hearings into the activities of a prominent Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

    While the Senate has been somewhat more assertive in conducting investigations, the Senate's major investigatory panel, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has focused largely on its homeland security mission and has not done much oversight of the Bush administration, said Peter Stockton, a congressional investigator who heads the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.

    The Senate panel has held hearings on Pentagon waste of unused airline tickets, the danger of purchasing pharmaceuticals over the Internet, and civilian contractors who cheat on their taxes. But like its House counterpart, the committee has failed to investigate larger matters such as the failed search for weapons of mass destruction, or the case of a government actuary who said he was asked not to reveal information showing that the 2003 Medicare prescription drug package would cost much more than the administration told Congress.

    ''They're clearly not doing the big stuff," Stockton said.

    Waxman, who held his own unofficial hearing into Iraq contracting, has been rebuffed in his efforts to conduct bipartisan investigations on a number of topics that involve members of the administration and powerful industries. The rejected list includes: the administration role, if any, in condoning detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the use of government funds for ''covert propaganda" in the media, the politicization of science policy, government secrecy, industry influence in rule-making at the Environmental Protection Agency, the decline of FDA enforcement against drug companies, and the case of naming Plame Wilson, the CIA operative.

    None of those recommendations made it into the Government Reform panel's oversight plan for the current Congress -- a document it must file every two years. Instead, the 140 approved oversight topics feature such bureaucratic matters as ''the activities of the Bureau of Economic Analysis" and ''the government's migration to Internet Protocol version IPv6."

    Under pressure, the Government Reform Committee did hold four hearings in the last Congress on contracting for Iraqi reconstruction. But critics say the panel was mostly interested in exonerating Halliburton, Cheney's former firm, accused of overcharging the government in its contracts. The final report dismissed critical witnesses as ''so-called whistle-blowers" and attributed reconstruction mishaps to ''the fog of war."

    While GOP lawmakers said the hearings were an exhaustive review of Halliburton's activities, Democrats conducted their own, unofficial inquiry and disclosed documents and information not revealed at the House hearings.

    ''It appeared to me that the House hearings were called in order to defend Halliburton, which is a pretty pathetic way to do investigative oversight," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who led shadow hearings. ''To the extent that the Republican-controlled Congress has done any oversight at all, it has largely been done to support Halliburton and to allege that anyone looking into these things has been partisan."

    At a House Armed Services Committee meeting last year, some Democrats and a Republican requested access to the scores of separate executive branch documents and reports on the Abu Ghraib episode. But the panel's chairman, Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, refused to request the documents, saying the rest of the committee should first read the Army's entire 6000-page report on the matter, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to the Globe.

    ''The idea that we're going to send a message back now, that somehow we have been stonewalled when they sent us 6,000 [pages] and only four members of the committee have had the time to read them so far, does not make sense," Hunter said. He then said the panel should focus on other issues, such as Korea and China.

    © Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.
    No One Knows Everything. Only Together May We Find The Truth JG


  2. #2
    jetsetlemming Guest
    Congress hasn't been useful in a very long time. They allowed Bush to go to war, remember.

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