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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)

The stagecraft of hearings -- finding convincing witnesses, targeting questions -- can baffle young staffers who may never have seen a full-fledged inquiry, except on television.

Quietly, a cadre of seasoned investigators have been training inexperienced staffers in the nuts and bolts of holding the executive branch's feet to the fire. Every month, about 30 staff members attend workshops held on the Hill by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. The topics have included a crash course on government contracts, investigating private companies, and earlier this month, "Working with Insiders and Whistleblowers."

The workshops began late last year, after the group's investigators kept running into young aides whose elementary questions reflected the loss of "old-guard Hill warhorses who had been doing oversight over the years," said Executive Director Danielle Brian.

The project's written tips for "The Do's and Don'ts of an Oversight Hearing" include: "Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense's $640 toilet seat" and "Don't book it in the afternoon -- and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption."

Twice monthly in the Senate, a few dozen oversight staffers meet to share tactics, prioritize and draw lessons from the hearings in progress. In the House, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has just asked seasoned committee investigators to work with the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service to design a training course on oversight.

A key committee staffer said that Congress may consider strengthening the GAO's powers to subpoena documents, developing measures to better protect whistle-blowers from reprisals, and increasing the salaries of agency inspectors general -- who are often paid less than their deputies because of a quirk in the law.

But one of the biggest challenges is deciding what issue to dig into next, before the biggest spate of investigations in years is pushed off center stage by a heavy legislative agenda and the presidential primary season.

"Figuring out what priorities should be, particularly on committees that have not fulfilled their oversight function, is a big issue," a House staffer said. "There may be committees out there that haven't issued subpoenas in six years." But not for long, he said. staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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