For the past six years, the Republican-run federal government has been free to waste money, reward friends, and act incompetently, knowing that their misdeeds would go unexposed by the legislative branch. By handing Democrats the reins of congressional power, American voters, in effect, sent in a posse to find out what in tarnation’s been going on.
Handling much of the roundup will be Democratic members of the relatively obscure House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. And as it happens, New England is well represented on that committee, occupying five of its 23 Democratic seats. Not with old-timers such as Ed Markey and Jim McGovern, mind you, but with relative newcomers eager to make their marks. Committee returnees John Tierney and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts will be joined by freshmen Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, and Peter Welch of Vermont. And New England’s only House Republican, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, is a minority member.
You name it, the committee can investigate it — and it likely will do so under the leadership of Florida’s Henry Waxman, who promises to be an aggressive chair.
Even as the minority party, Democrats managed to tackle Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina contracts, political interference at the Food and Drug Administration, and much more. But now that they have the power to make serious inquiries, all hell’s about to break loose — and with a New England accent. In switching from minority to majority, Waxman’s supporting staff doubles and his funding soars. The Democrats plan to call hearings and issue official reports to Congress, rather than what, under GOP rule, amounted to lengthy press releases.
Most important, perhaps, the committee will have the power to subpoena witnesses who decline to testify. That’s a “last resort,” says a committee staffer, that Waxman “has said he hopes not to use.” But given the Bush administration’s notorious reluctance to provide information voluntarily, it translates as “ready or not, here they come.”
A surge of attention to Iraq
Most of us are familiar with congressional oversight conducted by high-potency committees in the Senate. That chamber’s Judiciary Committee holds high-profile grillings of nominated judges, for instance; and its Foreign Relations Committee recently berated Condoleezza Rice.
But when it comes to investigating and exposing bad government, House Oversight and Government Reform is where it’s at.
Not that you would know that from recent history. After all, under Republican control, the committee didn’t exactly take a jackhammer to White House stonewalling. In the past two years, it produced just nine official reports (not including a special bipartisan investigation into Hurricane Katrina). Among them were two analyses of drug-control policy; a citizen’s guide to the Freedom of Information Act; a re-examination of baseball slugger Rafael Palmiero’s steroid-use testimony; a discussion of the methamphetamine epidemic; and progress reports on brownfield conversion, nuclear-security standards, and community-development block grants. A typical hearing title: “Gangs, Fraud, and Sexual Predators: Struggling with the Consequences of Illegal Immigration.” Not exactly the sort of stuff that should be preoccupying those charged with holding the world’s mightiest power accountable.
Our local congressmen have bigger fish to fry. Hodes and Murphy both made the Oversight and Government Reform assignment their top committee requests, according to their staffs. Tierney has been made chair of the key subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs. And Lynch, an early supporter of the Iraq War now disgusted with its implementation, tells the Phoenix he passed up the opportunity to chair one of the subcommittees, in order to help Waxman investigate administrative and intelligence failures in Iraq — which, unsurprisingly, will be the focus of the full committee’s first hearing.
When it comes to Iraq, Waxman isn’t screwing around: the first person he has called to testify is L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Waxman sent a letter to Bremer last week, requesting him to appear at 10 am Tuesday, February 6, to answer questions about waste, fraud, and abuse in Iraq reconstruction efforts during his watch. “Be prepared to discuss an audit report . . . that concluded that more than $8.8 billion in cash under the CPA’s control was dispersed without adequate financial controls or accountability,” that letter says.
Lynch says the full committee intends to hold hearings on the intelligence-gathering and planning efforts leading up to the war, as well as investigations into what he calls the Iraq reconstruction “fiasco.”
“We want to hold the Defense Department accountable, hold the contractors involved accountable, and hold the president accountable,” Lynch says. “Some of these projects have gone 500 percent over budget.”
While the big issues on Iraq will be handled by the full committee, according to staffers, other matters relating to the Bush administration’s miserable performance on national security and foreign affairs will have a particular New England flair. Not only does Tierney chair the relevant subcommittee, but Lynch, Hodes, and Welch have all been assigned to it — and the region’s one Republican, Christopher Shays, is the subcommittee’s ranking minority.