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

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

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.

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