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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On Capitol Hill, the change in power will almost certainly result in a different approach to congressional oversight. From Iraq to intelligence to business regulation, Democrats will now run key committees. That means they also take on the role of federal watchdog. The question, just how strong is that dog's bite?

Representative Henry Waxman is a Democrat from California. He's in line to chair the government reform committee in the House, and he joins us now. Congressman Waxman, good to have you on the show.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Thank you. Pleased to be with you.

NORRIS: So on your committee, you really do have broad jurisdiction over almost everything. What is at the top of your to do list?

Representative WAXMAN: Our committee is the chief investigative and oversight committee in the House and we have jurisdiction to look at any issue at all that might affect the federal government.

I see our role primarily in three themes. One, watching out for the taxpayers' dollar. The second thing is that if there's profiteering going on by corporations taking advantages of Americans, I want us to investigate it. And thirdly, we should be sure that government is functioning for the people. Whether it's the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, we want to make sure those agencies of government are doing their job.

NORRIS: When you talk about your committee having jurisdiction over almost everything, I can imagine that a listener hears that and pictures you sitting in your office somehow rubbing your hands together.

Representative WAXMAN: Well, if anything, it's wringing my hands as to what are the things where we can make a difference and where we ought to focus our attention.

I thought that one of the real problems when the Republicans had control of Congress and Clinton was president, they were willing to investigate the smallest accusation, make wild charges, issue subpoenas, call hearings. And then when Bush became president they were willing to ignore the largest scandals.

NORRIS: What did the Republicans ignore?

Representative WAXMAN: Well, let me give you a really graphic example. When Clinton was president, they held at least a week's worth of effort, including hearings, on whether President Clinton misused his Christmas card list for political purposes.

When Bush became president, I asked the Republicans to hold hearings on the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I asked them to hold hearings on the manipulation of intelligence that got us into the Iraq war. I requested that we hold hearings on the waste of taxpayers' dollars by overpaying contractors in Iraq. And they didn't think that was important enough for their efforts.

So it seems to me a glaring example of a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other based on politics. And oversight ought to be done based on our responsibility, not our political point of view.

NORRIS: How do you find the balance there in looking at the build up to the war and the way the war has been conducted, is there a danger there if you hold oversight hearings on some of those issues that you're taking some of the focus and the energy and the effort away from really trying to focus on finding a way forward in Iraq?

Representative WAXMAN: Well, I think we always have know how we got into the situation we're in. But let's look at the question of manipulating intelligence to get us into the war. I think it's so clear at this point that the information that we were given to go to war was wrong. So I don't know that plowing over that old ground again is going to be all that productive.

But I think for our committee, which does have jurisdiction over government contracts, we ought to be looking at why we're continuing the process with the administration of getting big monopoly contracts to very few contractors without competition and then overpaying them. I don't think that makes sense. At some point, you want to demand that they learn a lesson and change their ways, and Congress is the way to push that forward.

NORRIS: Congressman Waxman, thanks so much for your time. It's been great talking to you.

Representative WAXMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Congressman Henry Waxman, he's a Democrat from California. He's in line to chair the Government Reform Committee in the House.

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