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Congress looks to revive oversight role

Since Democrats assumed control of Congress in January, they have hired more than 200 investigative staffers for key watchdog committees.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Over the course of only 15 minutes today, three congressional committees will consider subpoenas for half a dozen officials from the White House and the departments of Justice and State. On the list is former presidential chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Justice Department liaison to the White House Monica M. Goodling, a key figure in the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Republican leaders call it a "partisan witch hunt." But Democratic lawmakers, and even some Republicans, say it is an overdue return to their constitutional role of executive-branch oversight.

Since Democrats assumed control of Congress in January, they have hired more than 200 investigative staffers for key watchdog committees. They include lawyers, former reporters and congressional staffers who left oversight committees that had all but atrophied during the six years that the GOP controlled Congress and the White House. They have already begun a series of inquiries on subjects ranging from allegations of administration meddling in federal scientists' work on global warming and the General Services Administration's alleged work for Republican campaigns to how disproved claims that Iraq had purchased nuclear material from Niger evolved into a case for war.

Democrats have been emboldened, investigators say, by their House and Senate judiciary committee colleagues' inquiries into the firings of U.S. attorneys. Last week's day-long testimony by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, some Democrats said, was a reminder of how rare Cabinet-level grillings had become on Capitol Hill. By the end of today, the Senate Judiciary Committee alone is set to authorize subpoenas for 15 people in the inquiry on the prosecutor dismissals.

"Oversight is just as important, if not more important, than legislation," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The new investigations illustrate just how many questions went unanswered in the six years when Democrats "couldn't hold hearings, we couldn't compel information . . . all we could do was ask for it," he said.

Now, Waxman said, what to tackle next "is something we're always thinking about."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have assigned staff members to monitor "what fights we're picking and how we're picking them," an aide said.

Plame case
New investigative subcommittees and staffers add oversight heft to the House Armed Services, Science and Foreign Affairs committees, and even to the Senate's Special Committee on Aging. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) is retooling his investigations staff, which Republicans gutted last year. Waxman's panel, previously known as the Committee on Government Reform, changed its name to Oversight and Government Reform. It backed up its renewed focus with 12 new investigators on the Democratic side and a dozen new inquiries since January. The committee wants to question Rice on several issues, including the fabricated claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger, and Card on the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity and on allegations of security violations at the White House.

Republican leaders complain that the Democrats' tactics could have more to do with political theater than with legitimate oversight.

"More oversight is always good, and the most credible oversight is nonpartisan. It's fine that the new Democratic majority is trying to conduct executive-branch oversight," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which is known for its investigative prowess. "But it'll be interesting to see whether they get results and make the executive branch work better for the American people or whether they just generate a series of embarrassing headlines for the White House."

With the Democratic ramp-up comes a dire need for practical experience in investigations. The Democrats' former minority status had left them short of seasoned staffers. Before new investigators came on board, some Hill staffers resorted to using Google to search for documents, oblivious to Congress's power to demand them.

"One of the first things that was brought to my attention was that Congress doesn't have to use FOIA," said a House staffer, 32, referring to Freedom of Information Act requests, an approach used by the public that can take months to yield a response. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because, she said, her questions were "embarrassing."

The stagecraft of hearings -- finding convincing witnesses, targeting questions -- can baffle young staffers who may never have seen a full-fledged inquiry, except on television.

Quietly, a cadre of seasoned investigators have been training inexperienced staffers in the nuts and bolts of holding the executive branch's feet to the fire. Every month, about 30 staff members attend workshops held on the Hill by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. The topics have included a crash course on government contracts, investigating private companies, and earlier this month, "Working with Insiders and Whistleblowers."

The workshops began late last year, after the group's investigators kept running into young aides whose elementary questions reflected the loss of "old-guard Hill warhorses who had been doing oversight over the years," said Executive Director Danielle Brian.

The project's written tips for "The Do's and Don'ts of an Oversight Hearing" include: "Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense's $640 toilet seat" and "Don't book it in the afternoon -- and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption."

Sharing tactics
Twice monthly in the Senate, a few dozen oversight staffers meet to share tactics, prioritize and draw lessons from the hearings in progress. In the House, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has just asked seasoned committee investigators to work with the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service to design a training course on oversight.

A key committee staffer said that Congress may consider strengthening the GAO's powers to subpoena documents, developing measures to better protect whistle-blowers from reprisals, and increasing the salaries of agency inspectors general -- who are often paid less than their deputies because of a quirk in the law.

But one of the biggest challenges is deciding what issue to dig into next, before the biggest spate of investigations in years is pushed off center stage by a heavy legislative agenda and the presidential primary season.

"Figuring out what priorities should be, particularly on committees that have not fulfilled their oversight function, is a big issue," a House staffer said. "There may be committees out there that haven't issued subpoenas in six years." But not for long, he said. staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.