The Oversight Years


Washington, D.C.—All last week, people were pumped and primed by the press to remember Ronald Reagan as a happy, nice guy. There’s nothing happy about the Reagan revolution, which got under way with his election in 1980. Reagan and his supporters spoke with nostalgia about FDR, while they diligently worked to reduce, shut down, or wreck every bit of the New Deal they could lay their hands on. That entailed frontal attacks on some agencies and an underground assault on the federal civil service in an attempt to end its independence. Most of all, it meant taking over and neutering Congress. The best way to do that was to get rid of the prying investigations conducted by oversight committees.

Silencing these committees was one of the most successful ventures of the Reagan era. Where Detroit’s Democratic congressman John Dingell once induced terror with his investigations into energy and commerce, his once active committee has fallen into a coma. Congress has not bothered to inquire into Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force. No congressional committee brought its full weight to bear on Enron’s officials. Nor did any member of Congress actually make an effort to investigate the underlying scandal of the management of 401(k) funds. Everyone in Washington knows the Securities and Exchange Commission is woefully short-staffed and, even if it wanted to, would be incapable of conducting a seriously sweeping investigation of Wall Street. That job has been left to New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer. In other areas of commerce, including tobacco and insurance, the state governments, not the federal government, have taken the lead.

Both the Senate and House armed services committees have brought to a halt their inquiries into the Iraq prison abuse scandal. Not that those committees ever did anything but toady to the Pentagon brass. Even so, chairman John Warner of the Senate panel made a gesture—some might even say mustered an effort—at making an inquiry into the scandal. But when lawmakers bore down on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney bluntly warned them, “Get off his case.” The only governmental inquiries so far have been carried out by the military itself.

After taking a serious look at American intelligence services and their role in 9-11, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee has fallen to party squabbling, and key sections of its basic report remain classified and out of public view. As for 9-11, it was tossed to the flip-flopping 9-11 Commission and its cozy off-the-record get-together with Bush and Cheney. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Richard G. Lugar, appeared to be getting serious earlier this year when he told the administration to provide candid answers on Iraq policy. But when top administrative officials refused to show, he drew back and appeared satisfied with lower-ranking officials. When Connecticut congressman Christopher Shays made a trip to Iraq to see for himself what was going on, the U.S. occupation’s czar, L. Paul Bremer III, took him to task for making his operations difficult. “If we had been visiting these prisons in August, September, October of last year,” Shays told Congressional Quarterly, which described the decline of congressional oversight in its May 22 issue, “we probably would have had someone saying to us, ‘You won’t believe what’s going on here. Some people are about to go over the edge.’ ”

These are but a few of the key issues Congress has sidestepped. Members freely admit they never read the Patriot Act when it was rushed through Congress after 9-11, and since then there has been only tepid interest in the plight of detainees. Congress has not exactly been known for undertaking any serious inquiry into the nation’s energy supply or the oil industry’s operations—even though most of our oil and gas comes from the public domain, and one-third of the nation’s land is administered by federal agencies. The government pays little attention to pricing oil and gas leases and has refused to undertake an investigation of the actual reserves. Thus, our entire knowledge of what’s in the public domain is fed to us now, as in the past, by the industry. With an election coming up, Congress has never made a thorough inquiry into alleged inadequacies in the nation’s voting procedures, nor looked into the voting irregularities in Florida that may well have handed the 2000 election to Bush.