The oversight era begins


Congressional Democrats promised during the election that once in control of Congress they would launch a long overdue series of oversight hearings on the performance of the Bush administration. This week they began to make good on that promise.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee began looking into the incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority that squandered billions while failing to bring order to postwar Iraq.

The committee summoned the head of the now disbanded CPA, L. Paul Bremer, but won only an admission the official who presided over the disbanding of the Iraqi army, police and, effectively, the government and the looting of Baghdad that in hindsight he might have done some things differently.

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank suggested that the Democratic members’ inability to go for the jugular was lack of practice during their 12 years in the minority. And the chairman did make a rookie mistake by letting each member of the committee read an opening statement, consuming over two hours of valuable Q-and-A time.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had better luck investigating what seems to be the politically motivated firing of seven U.S. attorneys in the South and West. The Justice Department denied that politics was involved but it sure looked that way.

The top federal prosecutor in Little Rock was removed to be replaced by a former aide to presidential intimate Karl Rove and Republican National Committee staffer. Another who was removed was the respected U.S. attorney in San Diego who won the bribery conviction of former Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham and who has an ongoing investigation into GOP-linked government contractors.

The Justice Department took advantage of an obscure provision slipped into the USA Patriot Act that allows the president to appoint U.S. attorneys on an indefinite interim basis, thus avoiding Senate confirmation. A plan to strike that provision seems to be picking up bipartisan support.

At a House appropriations subcommittee hearing into the Department of Homeland Security, the lawmakers heard from top government investigators Comptroller General David Walker and the department’s own inspector general, Richard Skinner, who the department impedes through inaction investigations into fraud and waste.

The department’s policy is “delay, delay, delay,” said Walker. Getting documents can take weeks and the department stalls on producing officials for interviews. A departmental letter Skinner wrote last summer explaining the IG’s functions and urging workers to cooperate still hasn’t been distributed.

True, there may be an element of bipartisanship in the oversight, but in their unwillingness to confront or even faintly criticize the Bush administration the Republicans let an important function of Congress lapse.