By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005
After a series of embarrassing disclosures, Congress is reconsidering its relatively lenient oversight of the Bush administration.
Lawmakers have been caught by surprise by several recent reports, including the existence of secret U.S. prisons abroad, the CIA's detention overseas of innocent foreign nationals, and, last week, the discovery that the military has been engaged in domestic spying. After five years in which the GOP-controlled House and Senate undertook few investigations into the administration's activities, the legislative branch has begun to complain about being in the dark.
On Friday, after learning that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on conversations in the United States, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that the activity was "wrong and it can't be condoned at all," and that his committee "can undertake oversight on it."
That same day, the House approved a resolution that would direct the administration to provide House and Senate intelligence committees with classified reports on the secret U.S. prisons overseas.
Democrats have long complained about a dearth of congressional investigations into Bush administration activities, but their criticism has been gaining validation from others after the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, problems in Iraq and ethical lapses.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said this fall that "the people's representatives over on the Hill in that other branch of government have truly abandoned their oversight responsibilities [on national security] and have let things atrophy to the point that if we don't do something about it, it's going to get even more dangerous than it already is."
In an interview last week, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said "it's a fair comment" that the GOP-controlled Congress has done insufficient oversight and "ought to be" doing more.
"Republican Congresses tend to overinvestigate Democratic administrations and underinvestigate their own," said Davis, who added that he has tried to pick up some of the slack with his committee. "I get concerned we lose our separation of powers when one party controls both branches."
Democrats on the committee said the panel issued 1,052 subpoenas to probe alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party between 1997 and 2002, at a cost of more than $35 million. By contrast, the committee under Davis has issued three subpoenas to the Bush administration, two to the Energy Department over nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, and one last week to the Defense Department over Katrina documents.
Some experts on Congress say that the legislative branch has shed much of its oversight authority because of a combination of aggressive actions by the Bush administration, acquiescence by congressional leaders, and political demands that keep lawmakers out of Washington more than before.
"I do not think you can argue today that Congress is a coequal branch of government; it is not," said Lee H. Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, told reporters this month: "It has basically lost the war-making power. The real debates on budget occur not in Congress but in the Office of Management and Budget. . . . When you come into session Tuesday afternoon and leave Thursday afternoon, you simply do not have time for oversight or deliberation."
Last week, Democrats in the House denounced their GOP counterparts for failing to pursue investigations. Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, criticized Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) for his handling of an inquiry into former committee member Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), who resigned after acknowledging he took bribes. Hoekstra's decision to proceed with existing committee staff without the House counsel or inspector general "threatens to compromise our ability to conduct a thorough, expeditious and bipartisan investigation," she said.
Democrats demanded that Davis, who heads the select committee investigating the Katrina response, issue subpoenas to get e-mails and communications of White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and three other White House officials. "Congress will never understand why the federal response failed unless we obtain access to the e-mails and communications of Andrew Card and other senior White House officials," committee Democrats wrote Davis.
Last month, House Democrats tried to pass a measure criticizing the GOP for a "refusal to conduct oversight" of the Iraq war. In the Senate, Democrats forced the chamber into a closed session to embarrass Republicans for foot-dragging on an inquiry into the alleged manipulation of Iraq intelligence.
"The House has absolutely zero oversight. They just don't engage in that," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said in an interview last week.
Specifically, Democrats list 14 areas where the GOP majority has "failed to investigate" the administration, including the role of senior officials in the abuse of detainees; leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame; the role of Vice President Cheney's office in awarding contracts to Cheney's former employer, Halliburton; the White House's withholding from Congress the cost of a Medicare prescription drug plan; the administration's relationship with Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi; and the influence of corporate interests on energy policy, environmental regulation and tobacco policy.
Meanwhile, the House ethics committee has not opened a new case or launched an investigation in the past 12 months, despite outside investigations involving, among others, Cunningham and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In most cases, Republicans have said that Democrats are motivated by partisanship rather than fact-finding. After Democrats forced the closed Senate session last month over the slow pace of the inquiry into alleged manipulation of Iraq intelligence, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) railed: "They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas. This is a pure stunt."
Among the most visible oversight battles is Davis's Katrina inquiry, which most Democrats have boycotted as a "sham." Davis said he would "bet my reputation" that the committee will disprove doubts.
At times, Davis has been irritated by administration intransigence. At a hearing last month, he condemned the "lack of production of documents from various executive branch offices" and warned: "We're not going to be stonewalled here."
Democrats, who have tried to get Davis to subpoena the White House for Katrina documents, are not impressed. "Republicans have made a mockery of oversight," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat. "There was nothing too small to be investigated in the Clinton administration and there's nothing so big that it can't be ignored in the Bush administration."
Davis said his reluctance to issue a subpoena is practical. The select committee faces a Feb. 15 deadline, and a subpoena -- even if approved, as required, by the entire House -- would be tied up in court by the administration until the committee's writ had expired. Issuing a subpoena would do nothing "except embarrass" the White House -- which Davis has not ruled out doing. "As of right now, I'm not satisfied" with White House cooperation, he said.
Davis said his Government Reform Committee has investigated the administration's handling of bioterrorism defenses and preparing for avian influenza and held four hearings on Halliburton's contracts -- after the House Armed Services Committee refused to do so. Similarly, Davis called hearings on the administration's policy on mad cow disease after Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) declined.
"They said it would embarrass the administration," Davis said.