White House Feels Waxman's Oversight Gaze
Thursday, October 25, 2007
For months, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, has been threatening, subpoenaing and just plain badgering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come before his panel to answer questions about the run-up to the Iraq war, corruption and State Department contracting.
Today, Rice will finally appear. But Waxman (D-Calif.) has not spent the week on a victory lap. He has found time to produce evidence accusing State Department security contractor Blackwater Worldwide of tax evasion, to fire off a letter to Rice demanding information about alleged mismanagement of a $1 billion contract to train Iraqi police, and to hold a hearing on uranium poisoning on Navajo land.
Waxman has become the Bush administration's worst nightmare: a Democrat in the majority with subpoena power and the inclination to overturn rocks. But in Waxman the White House also faces an indefatigable capital veteran -- with a staff renowned for its depth and experience -- who has been waiting for this for 14 years.
These days, the 16-term congressman is always ready with a hearing, a fresh crop of internal administration e-mails or a new explosive report. And he has more than two dozen investigations underway, on such issues as the politicization of the entire federal government, formaldehyde in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, global warming, and safety concerns about the diabetes drug Avandia.
"We have to let people know they have someone watching them after six years with no oversight at all," said Waxman, 68. "And we've got a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick."
Republicans have their share of complaints. They say that Waxman's staff cuts corners, plays "gotcha" with witnesses and committee Republicans, bypasses GOP staff members by interviewing witnesses rather than depositioning them, and would rather investigate than legislate. But even some of them speak with grudging admiration.
"For the administration, and for a lot of others, people need to be careful now," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the ranking Republican on the committee. "Someone is looking over their shoulder."
Republicans and Democrats say that Waxman has marshaled three ingredients from his staff -- tenacity, experience and loyalty -- to make it one of the brightest spots on the new Congress's otherwise mixed record. The number of Democratic staff members has doubled, to about 75, since the party took control. About 25 investigators make up the core of Waxman's team.
Philip M. Schiliro, his committee chief of staff and the strategic brains of the operation, has been with Waxman since 1982. The congressman's staff director, Phil Barnett, has been with him since 1989. Karen Nelson, the committee's health policy director, has been with Waxman since 1978.
"The best way for Congress to work is if you have a leadership-driven program that the party is trying to push, but that has to be leavened by the knowledge that people have from spending 10 or 15 years on a committee," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "Do you think the leadership alone could design everything he's been doing? The leadership knows what they want investigated, but Henry also has some fabulous years of expertise and experience that lets him do something that virtually nobody else in this body could do."
The committee's style can be brash. To depose witnesses, Democratic staff members must notify Republicans, explain exhaustive legal rights and release transcripts only by committee agreement, said David Marin, the Republican staff director. So Schiliro and company favor less formal interviews, knowing that the penalty for perjury can be just as stiff. Word is out among government contractors to demand depositions whenever possible when the oversight panel comes to call.
Committee rules also require the majority staff to send a memo to the minority three days in advance, detailing the subject of an upcoming hearing and the issues that will be raised. Marin said advance memos tend to be milquetoast previews. Supplemental memos, which may reach Republicans just hours before the curtain rises, deliver the goods on just what Waxman is about to spring. With no time to formulate a rebuttal, Republicans can only watch the show.