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Capitol Hill Journal

Frustrated Democrats Find a Voice

Lawmakers Use Policy Committee to Investigate Issues They Say GOP Ignores

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page A03

C-SPAN viewers tuning in yesterday morning might have thought they misread the results of November's elections.

There was Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.) -- a Democrat -- wielding a gavel and calling to order a hearing on Iraq contracts. Dorgan presided over a wood-paneled Senate hearing room, complete with water pitchers on the witness table, nameplates for the committee members, and C-SPAN 1 -- live!

Broadcast journalist Don North, right, of Fairfax testifies at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Capitol Hill studying waste, fraud and abuse in U.S. government contracting in Iraq. (Dennis Cook -- AP)

But, paying closer attention, the viewers might have noticed that there were no Republicans on the panel, no administration officials at the witness table, and only two Democratic senators in the room. Then, the viewer might have surmised, correctly, that this was not a real committee hearing.

These are frustrating times for the Democratic Party, shut out of power in the White House, the House and the Senate. Democrats don't have power to call hearings, to subpoena witnesses or to move legislation.

But they still have the power to raise a ruckus. And one of their best vehicles for raising a ruckus is the Democratic Policy Committee, a taxpayer-funded entity established by law and given the power to hold meetings, pay for witnesses' travel and, on a good day, get coverage from C-SPAN.

"You guys usually call these things 'events,' " Dorgan protested when asked about the session's legitimacy. "We're trying very hard to do this in a serious way."

Dorgan has held "hearings" on Halliburton's role in Iraq and on Bush's Social Security plan. And Dorgan has promised to have such sessions monthly, if not more frequently.

The Democrats' complaint is that Republicans, who control the real committees, will not hold hearings on anything that might embarrass the administration. "There is a serious problem here in the Congress with a lack of oversight hearings," Dorgan said at his hearing/event.

Republicans were not moved by Dorgan's entreaties. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that Iraq contracts already receive "intense scrutiny" from a variety of entities. "I plan to continue monitoring such oversight to ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely," she said in a statement.

The Democrats did all they could to draw attention to their event. They displayed on the dais a blown-up picture of a U.S. official with more than 20 "bricks" of cash, each worth $100,000, that were later handed over to a contractor.

For the minority party, even live coverage by C-SPAN is not a given, so special efforts were made to lure the network's cameras. "Part of the trick is you do it on a Monday or a Friday when the Senate's not in session," explained Jim Manley, a spokesman for the Democratic leadership.

Still, the Democrats might get others to take their events/hearings more seriously if they did so themselves. Only two senators bothered to attend the nearly two-hour event -- Dorgan and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who told those assembled that "I have a number of questions, but I have other things to do."

Another speaker listed as participating in the event, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), was a no-show. His panel rather empty, Dorgan invited one of the "witnesses," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), to become a questioner.

As a stand-in, Waxman performed ably. He spoke of the proceedings as "our inquiry." He asked a leading question about whether a witness is "concerned" that the Bush administration is blocking pursuit of the alleged fraud.

"Yes, Congressman, I'm very concerned about that," the witness dutifully replied.

Waxman's real question, though, was directed not at the witnesses but at the majority party. "Why aren't the people running the Congress holding hearings like this?" he wanted to know. "Power corrupts, and this seems to have happened where a lot of money was involved. We have theft, bribery, fraud, corruption because no one's watching those people who are in charge of the money."

No one, that is, but Byron Dorgan.

Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company