Revival of Oversight Role Sought

"Oversight is just as important" as legislation, if not more so, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Over the course of only 15 minutes today, three congressional committees will consider subpoenas for half a dozen officials from the White House and the departments of Justice and State. On the list is former presidential chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Justice Department liaison to the White House Monica M. Goodling, a key figure in the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Republican leaders call it a "partisan witch hunt." But Democratic lawmakers, and even some Republicans, say it is an overdue return to their constitutional role of executive-branch oversight.

Since Democrats assumed control of Congress in January, they have hired more than 200 investigative staffers for key watchdog committees. They include lawyers, former reporters and congressional staffers who left oversight committees that had all but atrophied during the six years that the GOP controlled Congress and the White House. They have already begun a series of inquiries on subjects ranging from allegations of administration meddling in federal scientists' work on global warming and the General Services Administration's alleged work for Republican campaigns to how disproved claims that Iraq had purchased nuclear material from Niger evolved into a case for war.

Democrats have been emboldened, investigators say, by their House and Senate judiciary committee colleagues' inquiries into the firings of U.S. attorneys. Last week's day-long testimony by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, some Democrats said, was a reminder of how rare Cabinet-level grillings had become on Capitol Hill. By the end of today, the Senate Judiciary Committee alone is set to authorize subpoenas for 15 people in the inquiry on the prosecutor dismissals.

"Oversight is just as important, if not more important, than legislation," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The new investigations illustrate just how many questions went unanswered in the six years when Democrats "couldn't hold hearings, we couldn't compel information . . . all we could do was ask for it," he said.

Now, Waxman said, what to tackle next "is something we're always thinking about."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have assigned staff members to monitor "what fights we're picking and how we're picking them," an aide said.

New investigative subcommittees and staffers add oversight heft to the House Armed Services, Science and Foreign Affairs committees, and even to the Senate's Special Committee on Aging. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) is retooling his investigations staff, which Republicans gutted last year. Waxman's panel, previously known as the Committee on Government Reform, changed its name to Oversight and Government Reform. It backed up its renewed focus with 12 new investigators on the Democratic side and a dozen new inquiries since January. The committee wants to question Rice on several issues, including the fabricated claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger, and Card on the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity and on allegations of security violations at the White House.

Republican leaders complain that the Democrats' tactics could have more to do with political theater than with legitimate oversight.

"More oversight is always good, and the most credible oversight is nonpartisan. It's fine that the new Democratic majority is trying to conduct executive-branch oversight," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which is known for its investigative prowess. "But it'll be interesting to see whether they get results and make the executive branch work better for the American people or whether they just generate a series of embarrassing headlines for the White House."

With the Democratic ramp-up comes a dire need for practical experience in investigations. The Democrats' former minority status had left them short of seasoned staffers. Before new investigators came on board, some Hill staffers resorted to using Google to search for documents, oblivious to Congress's power to demand them.

"One of the first things that was brought to my attention was that Congress doesn't have to use FOIA," said a House staffer, 32, referring to Freedom of Information Act requests, an approach used by the public that can take months to yield a response. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because, she said, her questions were "embarrassing."

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