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Contract fraud? CIA abuses? Financial crisis? Congress used to investigate.

By Raymond Smock and Roger Bruns
Sunday, August 8, 2010; B02

C ongress has hosted no shortage of public floggings this year. BP chief executive Tony Hayward faced hostile questions about his company's responsibility for the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Toyota's Akio Toyoda tried to explain sticking gas pedals. And Goldman Sachs's Lloyd Blankfein was grilled on his firm's role in the financial disaster.

But it would be a mistake to conclude from these public spectacles that Congress is aggressively wielding its investigative and oversight powers. Quite the contrary. Prominent hearings by standing committees provide lawmakers a soapbox, creating the appearance of congressional action. But without the hard follow-up work of investigations that lead to real reform, many of the nation's most pressing problems remain unresolved.

Congress used to know how to investigate. In response to events ranging from war profiteering to Wall Street excesses to espionage transgressions, Congress formed special committees. Directed by powerful lawmakers, well-staffed and armed with subpoena power, these panels provided the public valuable information about government activities and spurred important legislation.

Increasingly, though, Congress's impulse has been to outsource this job to independent commissions, which have proliferated in the decades since the Warren Commission investigated President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Today, when faced with a crisis, Congress -- or the president -- appoints a commission, waits for its report and then, most of the time, files it away to obscurity.

Making matters worse, since commissions don't command the respect that members of Congress receive, they often have trouble acquiring evidence and find federal agencies uncooperative. As 9/11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton recalled in 2006: "We had a lot of trouble getting access to documents and to people. We knew the history of commissions . . . nobody paid much attention to 'em. So there were all kinds of reasons we thought we were set up to fail."

And still, the commissions keep coming. (See, for example, the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Commission.)

As it happens, three of the most effective congressional investigations ever convened addressed issues that are once again in the headlines. Although they date back several decades, the conclusions of the probes seem prescient. And they show what Congress can accomplish when it puts its institutional muscle to the task.

The Truman Committee

As Germany drove through Europe in the late 1930s, the United States began an unprecedented arms buildup, awarding billions of dollars in defense contracts. But by 1941, rumors suggested misuse of funds, lax oversight and fraud.

Harry S. Truman, then a little-known senator, went on a crusade to uncover such abuses, touring military bases and defense installations and demanding to see important documents. To his disgust, he found that many of the rumors had substance -- and that the situation threatened the nation's ability to mobilize for war.

In 1941, the Senate created a special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. With Truman as its chairman, the panel held hundreds of hearings and traveled to defense manufacturing sites across the country. As a result, the government began to hold defense contractors accountable for cost overruns, criminal misdeeds and unsatisfactory work. It is estimated that the committee saved the government as much as $15 billion (in World War II dollars) over the course of the war and saved the lives of many soldiers who would otherwise have been armed with defective weapons, machinery and gear.

In December 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan war contracting "staggering" and "breathtaking," told reporters that the country needed something similar to the Truman Committee. There remains a desperate need for such oversight today. A committee with the power to conduct a far-ranging investigation would let contractors know that someone is watching.

The Church Committee

Responding to revelations in the press regarding abuses by several federal intelligence agencies, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) in 1975 launched a congressional probe. Early in the committee's televised hearings, he dramatically held up a CIA dart gun designed to shoot tranquilizers. The committee revealed that the CIA possessed shellfish toxin, cobra venom and other poisons in violation of a 1970 presidential order to destroy all biological weapons.

That was just the beginning. Over the next nine months, the committee interviewed more than 800 officials and held 250 executive and 21 public hearings. In the process it discovered widespread abuses by the nation's intelligence agencies, which had illegally spied on union chiefs, civil rights leaders, journalists, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and even Eleanor Roosevelt.

The committee's reports resulted in the creation of the permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which established a court to issue warrants for domestic wiretapping.

Illegal wiretapping and other abuses by intelligence agencies and the executive branch in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks have offered plenty of fodder for television pundits, but they should have been subjected to congressional scrutiny. A serious investigation could have led to new laws needed to govern the post-9/11 landscape.

The Pecora Committee

In late 1932, the Senate Banking and Currency Committee hired former New York City prosecutor Ferdinand Pecora as chief counsel for a major investigation of the financial system failures that led to the Great Depression. The Sicilian-born, cigar-smoking Pecora had a photographic memory, an intricate understanding of the maze of schemes and machinations entangling the nation's banking system, and a flair for confronting witnesses with uncomfortable facts.

In one of the hearings' highlights, Pecora methodically led banking titan J.P. Morgan Jr. down an inquisitorial path that resulted in the financier's admissions that he had not been paying income taxes and that his company had distributed financial favors to influential individuals.

Pecora's work led to resignations of bank executives, but more important, it provided the factual base -- and the congressional motivation -- for the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which added oversight and protection against banking abuses, and the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from government-insured commercial banking.

Over the past two years, editorials, cable news shows and members of Congress have invoked Pecora's name in calling for a serious congressional investigation of the financial crisis, but so far these calls have gone unheeded.

Raymond Smock, a former historian of the House of Representatives, is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. Roger Bruns is a historian and former deputy executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. They are co-editors with David Hostetter of the forthcoming "Congress Investigates: A Critical and Documentary History."

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