Monday, November 21, 2005

Congress Reduces its Oversight Role

"We believed we had something to do, to [assure] that public money was being spent appropriately, that laws were being enforced, and we did. Our country was better for it," [Democratic Rep. John] Dingell said. But now, "everything seems to be run out of the White House."

SUSAN MILLIGAN, BOSTON GLOBE - 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.

The jarring comparison reflects the way Congress has conducted its oversight role during the GOP's era of one-party rule in Washington.

While congressional committees once were leaders in investigating the executive branch and powerful industries, the current Congress has largely spared major corporations and has done only minimal oversight of the Republican administration, according to a review of congressional documents by The Boston Globe. 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....

At a time when the Bush administration is under scrutiny from a special counsel inquiry, the lack of action by Congress appears to be especially striking. Senate Democrats invoked an obscure rule to force the body into a closed session and embarrass the Republicans into jump-starting an investigation into accusations that pre-Iraq War intelligence had been politicized.... Controversies such as the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, abuses at US detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, and the revealing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's name have gone largely unscrutinized on Capitol Hill. Instead, congressional committees have directed oversight at such topics as steroid abuses in sports and ''diploma mill" universities -- topics critics say are worthy, but which do not fulfill Congress's responsibility to be a check on the executive branch....

The agenda was different during the Clinton administration. The government reform panel alone, for example, issued 1,052 subpoenas related to investigations of the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee from 1997 to 2002, and only 11 subpoenas related to allegations of Republican abuse...

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