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Democrats pursue agenda with inquiries

Congressional Democrats are using subpoenas and other investigatory powers to expose Bush administration missteps and push for policy changes even as they struggle at times to enact legislation.
Congress Investigation
Former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Judiciary Committee, May 23, 2007.Lawrence Jackson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Congressional Democrats are using subpoenas and other investigatory powers to expose Bush administration missteps and push for policy changes even as they struggle at times to enact legislation.

Backed by hundreds of hearings that compel the administration's attention but often draw scant publicity, House and Senate Democrats are leaving their stamp on a range of governmental matters, without passing a bill.

Congressional inquiries have prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to test trailers used by displaced hurricane victims for formaldehyde poisoning. They triggered a Justice Department investigation into Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' role in firing federal prosecutors.

Other probes spurred the Army to recover millions of dollars in overpayments to private security contractors in Iraq. And the mere threat of Democratic-run hearings prompted President Bush, after months of resisting, to submit a controversial warrantless wiretap program to a special court's review.

'More important than legislation'
Congress' oversight and investigative powers are especially vital to Democrats because a potent GOP minority in the Senate has kept them from passing legislation on issues such as immigration and an Iraq withdrawal plan.

"Maybe it's even more important than legislation," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a key player who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Democrats' ability to conduct such hearings "has been the most important change since the 2006 election in terms of relations between the Congress and the administration," said Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar and co-author of a book on Congress, "The Broken Branch."

"I have no doubt the hearings have altered the course the administration has taken on a range of areas, including Iraq," Mann said.

The White House has complained bitterly about the sharp increase in congressional inquiries since Democrats took over the House and Senate in January.

"I would hope Congress would become more prone to deliver pieces of legislation that matter as opposed to being the investigative body," Bush said at an Aug. 9 news conference. "I mean, there have been over 600 different hearings, and yet they're struggling with getting appropriations bills to my desk."

Democrats call the inquiries long overdue after years of GOP-controlled congresses treating the administration with a light touch. "I don't think Congress is overdoing the oversight," Waxman said in an interview.

Litany of probes
New or expanded congressional inquiries seem to pop up almost daily. On July 17, Waxman called on a former White House political aide to testify about trips made by top federal drug policy officials to help GOP congressional candidates in the 2006 campaign's closing weeks.

The aide, Sara Taylor, had appeared only a week earlier before a Senate panel that subpoenaed her testimony about the prosecutor firings.


-Waxman's panel is conducting a multi-agency search for missing e-mail records to and from numerous White House officials who had electronic message accounts with the Republican National Committee.

-The House Judiciary Committee has approved contempt citations against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers because they refused to testify about the fired U.S. attorneys.

-The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming is looking into allegations that the Smithsonian Institution toned down a climate change exhibit to avoid angering lawmakers and the Bush administration.

-Waxman says he will introduce legislation to protect the surgeon general from political interference, following a hearing in which a former surgeon general said the administration muzzled him on sensitive public health matters.

-Waxman's committee is conducting an inquiry into the administration's handling of the friendly fire death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, which has proved embarrassing to the White House and Pentagon.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the House oversight committee, has joined Waxman in criticizing FEMA's formaldehyde policies and in pursuing the Tillman case. But on other topics, he says the chairman sometimes goes overboard.

"When you have one-party government, you tend to under-investigate," Davis said in an interview. "And when you have divided government, you tend to over-investigate."