Monday, November 21, 2005

Before and after, a look at congressional oversight:

Boston.com has a very telling article which describes the difference in the oversight role congress has taken with regards to the Bush II presidency compared with the Clinton presidency. Consider: (block quotes are from the story, regular text is my commentary)
Back in the mid-1990s, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, aggressively delving into alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration, logged 140 hours of sworn testimony into whether former president Bill Clinton had used the White House Christmas card list to identify potential Democratic donors.

In the past two years, a House committee has managed to take only 12 hours of sworn testimony about the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Of course we all know that the damage caused to America was far more extensive and harmful with regards to the possible use of the Christmas card list to get donors than that little brou ha ha over in Abu Ghraib. This is obviously a glaring example where the Republican controlled congress has simply seen fit to not investigate what would be an embarrassment to the Bush administration.
An examination of committees' own reports found that the House Government Reform Committee held just 37 hearings described as ''oversight" or investigative in nature during the last Congress, down from 135 such hearings held by its predecessor, the House Government Operations Committee, in 1993-94, the last year the Democrats controlled the chamber.

Party loyalty does not account for the difference: In 1993-94, the Democrats were investigating a Democratic administration.
Party loyalty indeed does not account for this difference. Party honsesty does. The Democrats understood it was the congress' role to oversee the administration in many areas, where-as the Republican led congress evidently has no interest in doing so because they are part and parcel of the same machine.
''I'm not sure they're stepping up to the plate on the more pressing issues of the time," former representative William F. Clinger, a Pennsylvania Republican, said of his party's leaders.
Based upon the statement of Mr. Clinger, we must suspect that there are several other facts he may not be sure of. Like the earth is round, kittens purr when you pet them, the moon causes tidal fluctuations and the Aspen leaves turn in the fall because their roots connect them. Well actually a lot of people didn't know about that last one until Mr. Libby saw fit to enlighten us on that matter, but the point remains. I suspect that Mr. Clinger actually believes that the Republicans are not fulfilling their oversight responsibilities and he was just putting it nicely.
''Congress has enormous power and it does nothing," said Frank Silbey, a former investigator for the Senate Labor Committee under both parties. ''It is absolutely the worst situation I have ever seen in my life. Congress shows no inclination to expand the public's right to know. That's one of the reasons for government oversight."
The publics right to know only goes so far Mr. Silbey. If you were a loyal Republican you would understand that the public does not need to know about several dozen facts like: this administration mislead America into a needless war, that our leaders have set forth policies that condone the torture of detainees, that this administration has no use for science when it sets policy normally based upon science, and that George Bush is capable of making a mistake.
Further, some of the recent hearings defined as oversight by panel leadership in fact served to advance a Bush administration agenda. In addition to the hearings into faith-based service providers and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, House and Senate panels have sought to expose the dangers of buying imported or pharmaceuticals sold on the Internet, buttressing a Republican and drug-industry position that Americans should not be permitted to buy cut-rate prescription drugs outside the United States.
In other words it is worse than we thought. The "oversight" of this congress consists of rubber stamping administration policies and giving them talking points to carry out their agenda. Why even pretend you are conducting oversight? It does not even constitute a figleaf for this congress to make these claims.

[Representative Tom] Davis [the current chairman of the Government Reform Committee] said the inquiry topics were worthy, and noted that the committee agenda -- which must be spelled out at the start of each session -- had been approved unanimously by the committee, including Democrats on the panel.
So according to rep Davis, it appears that the Democrats are part of the problem right? This is a great example actually of when the "facts" do not support the truth. Check out this part of the article:
Waxman, who held his own unofficial hearing into Iraq contracting, has been rebuffed in his efforts to conduct bipartisan investigations on a number of topics that involve members of the administration and powerful industries. The rejected list includes: the administration role, if any, in condoning detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the use of government funds for ''covert propaganda" in the media, the politicization of science policy, government secrecy, industry influence in rule-making at the Environmental Protection Agency, the decline of FDA enforcement against drug companies, and the case of naming Plame Wilson, the CIA operative.
So saying Democrats agreed to investigate the non-controversial stuff does not mean they approved of the lack of investigation on a whole range of issues that Republicans clearly do not want to look at. The Republicans have taken to not answering the questions presented them by pointing to facts that simply have no bearing on the issue. To say the Democrats signed off on the investigations carried out does not excuse the lack of oversight on the big questions the Democrats would like to oversee even though Rep. Davis would like to throw that "fact" out there as a smokescreen.

Finally we have the cases where oversight of important issues is actually given by congress, and the Republicans use the hearings to simply excuse the inexcusable and try to say that what we are seeing happening before our very eyes is not really happening at all:
Under pressure, the Government Reform Committee did hold four hearings in the last Congress on contracting for Iraqi reconstruction. But critics say the panel was mostly interested in exonerating Halliburton, Cheney's former firm, accused of overcharging the government in its contracts. The final report dismissed critical witnesses as ''so-called whistle-blowers" and attributed reconstruction mishaps to ''the fog of war."
...
''It appeared to me that the House hearings were called in order to defend Halliburton, which is a pretty pathetic way to do investigative oversight," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who led shadow hearings. ''To the extent that the Republican-controlled Congress has done any oversight at all, it has largely been done to support Halliburton and to allege that anyone looking into these things has been partisan."
The notion of an independent legislative oversight role has been turned on it's head by the Republicans ruling Washington. In my opinion this is as good as any issue short of the Iraqi quagmire for Democratic congressional candidates to run on in 2006. This issue is about basic honesty, good governance, and bringing a real change to the scene in Washington D.C. And I suspect should Democrats gain control of the congress in 2006 that the oversight role may not simply encompass administration snafu's and how to fix the damage, it could lead to impeachment proceedings based upon malfeasance by the president. But let us not put the cart before the horse in this regard. Democrats must gain the ability to dictate the matters that are overseen and then we shall see what we shall see.

Comments:
Sounds like Roman history to me...
 
I could also point out that this is not the only pernicous shift in power occuring these days. Though not strictly the result of Bush Co. actions, the interpretive and oversight roles of the judiciary are under a sustained attack from the right.

How often do we hear the cry of "judical activism"? The right is trying to change the very nature of the judiciary's role, essentially relegating it to second-class status.

I personally think that this is the bigger problem because it represents a restructuring of the system--not just one party hell-bent on going after the other, or failing to go after their own.
 
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