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Talking Points: Oversight and Accountability

In contrast to the last Congress, the 110th Congress has proven that it sees oversight and the accountability of the executive as important functions.

The 109th Congress was an exercise in unaccountability, turning a blind eye to scandals surrounding former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), among others. But so far, the 110th Congress has proven itself to be different. “Oversight is just as important, if not more important, than legislation,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. What investigators have uncovered are not only new improprieties by other lawmakers and the administration, but numerous scandals that went unchecked during the previous Congress. Partisan politics have now “infiltrated every level of our federal government,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) today. The American public backs aggressive congressional oversight. In a recent poll, 72 percent of the respondents said that they back Congress’s investigation of the Bush administration’s prosecutor purge.

  • Without congressional oversight, some administration officials have used power to advance personal interest and destroy political opponents. Last year, White House officials “conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity.” Congress, too, is facing ethical troubles. The probe of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) is continuing, with one of his district staffers recently subpoenaed. An FBI investigation caught him accepting cash to pay off Nigerian officials supporting one of his business ventures. As new evidence emerges in the U.S. attorney scandal, it appears increasingly clear that well-qualified prosecutors were pushed out for not playing partisan politics, and replaced by “loyal Bushies.” The former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, said that his firing was a “political hit.” Last year, Iglesias refused to cooperate with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM), who called him and pressured him to prosecute Democrats before the 2006 midterm elections. In one of the most high-profile cases, lawmakers, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), have raised questions about whether the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, Carol Lam, was ousted because she was “about to investigate other people who were politically powerful” in the corruption case of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
  • While Congress tries to do its job, members of the administration continue to put up roadblocks to finding the truth. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has not been eager to cooperate with Congress’s oversight. When the Senate Judiciary Committee requested the testimony of White House aides on the prosecutor purge, the White House issued a “compromise” — it would allow Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers to give unsworn testimony, not under oath, behind closed doors, and no transcript would be permitted. Waxman has repeatedly written letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting her testimony regarding President Bush’s claims that Iraq attempted to procure uranium from Niger. But each time, the State Department blew off his letters. Yesterday, the House oversight committee voted to subpoena Rice. Part of the reason investigations into the administration have been so difficult is because officials have not properly kept records of its communications. Roughly 50 White House officials use political email accounts to avoid the oversight that comes with the White House email system, which archives all messages.