Increasingly, Congress Flexes Oversight Muscles

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What a difference a subpoena — or even the threat of one — makes. Recently, a rash of sudden retirements related to scandals in the armed services and the Justice Department have led many to conclude that the era of oversight is back on Capitol Hill.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Today we explore the shifting ground between Congress and the president. Until Democrats took control of Congress in January, there was little they could do on Capitol Hill except make a lot of noise. Now with the reigns in hand, they are charging hard, aggressively pursuing oversight of the executive branch. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on what's happened so far and what's coming up.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Today, outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson testified. Last week it was officials from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and earlier it was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. For the last two months, there's been a hot new show in town with an all-star cast, and center stage: the wood-paneled hearing rooms of the U.S. Capitol.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Good morning, everybody. We are in a different hearing room than usual, but Attorney General, there was some interest in your testimony.

SEABROOK: Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy is one of the leaders of this new bout of oversight. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he's been a bulldog about the recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys. He says he's tired of the closed-door briefings from the White House and has a new plan for the coming months.

Sen. LEAHY: I've had the briefings. I didn't get the answers. We now have them under oath in open hearing.

SEABROOK: Leahy has subpoena authority to force five Justice Department officials and six former U.S. attorneys to testify, and next week he'll decide whether to subpoena top Bush advisor Karl Rove and others. And Leahy's not the only bulldog in Congress.

One of the first acts of California Democrat Henry Waxman when he took over the House Government Reform Committee was to change its name to Oversight and Government Reform. Waxman's the one who called Valerie Plame Wilson to testify today, and he's got a long backlog of issues he'd like to dig into: Katrina, Iraq money, intelligence. But other things keep popping up, like the mold at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In this snippet from a hearing Waxman called, Annette McCloud(ph), the wife of a brain-damaged veteran, tells Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney about her struggle to get medical care for her husband.

Ms. ANNETTE McCLOUD (Wife of Veteran): I went as far as the commander. I went to the generals. Anybody that would listen to me, I would talk.

Representative JOHN TIERNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Who was the commander at that point in time? Was it General Farmer?

Ms. McCLOUD: General Farmer, yes, sir.

Rep. TIERNEY: Did you go to General Farmer and express to him the difficulties?

Ms. McCLOUD: Yes, sir, I did. I was at his office door several days, and each time they turned me around.

SEABROOK: Democrats are digging in to find the people responsible. So far, three Army officials have gotten the ax in the Walter Reed scandal. One person who is not surprised at this frenzy of oversight is New York University public policy professor Paul Light. He says this is what happens when you have different parties in control of the White House and the Capitol and a lame duck for a president.

Mr. PAUL LIGHT (New York University): And we saw that in the last years of the Clinton administration, where they threw everything and the kitchen sink at him. We saw that at the end of the Reagan administration. So they're just throwing it all at George W. Bush, and he's supplying plenty of reason to do so.

SEABROOK: Wither the Republicans, you ask? Well, some are joining in with Democrats in aggressively questioning witnesses; some are doing their best to calm the storm a bit, and few are running to the defense of the president right now. NYU Professor Paul Light says this kind of tough oversight will be the major work of this Congress.

Mr. LIGHT: You'll see a lot of indictment, a lot of weakening of the Bush administration, so that the administration will have very little influence in helping the Republican candidate, whoever he or she might be in 2008, and very little legislation. Just lots of headlines.

SEABROOK: And we've only seen the beginning, say Democratic leaders. They're determined to pave the road to November, 2008 with a long series of oversight hearings. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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