Lacking the power to formally examine alleged corruption in the Bush administration, Senate Democrats plan to create their own investigative team and hold hearings on their findings in the new Congress.
Though the hearings will not be officially sanctioned by the Senate — and will not be aided by Congressional subpoena power — Democrats say they will offer an opportunity to provide oversight of the executive branch, which they claim has been lacking under Republican rule.
“The fact is, with one-party rule — the presidency and the House and Senate — there is no oversight on anything,” said Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “The oversight function … is non-existent.”
Dorgan, who will oversee this new investigative team, said that he expects about seven of his Democratic colleagues to take active roles. It will be housed in the policy committee, which traditionally has been tasked with analyzing the policy details of legislation, among other responsibilities.
While the DPC will continue to perform its traditional duties, the investigative component will quickly become a significant function of the committee, Dorgan said.
“This isn’t what I call a ‘gotcha’ exercise,” he said. “Oversight is a solemn responsibility of the United States Congress. We appropriate $2 trillion-plus and we have a responsibility to figure out what is happening to it.”
Dorgan cited several cases in which he believed Congress failed to perform its oversight duties in recent years. These include the administration’s claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the leaking of CIA Agent Valerie Plame’s name to syndicated columnist Robert Novak by an administration official.
The first hearing is likely to take place in January, Dorgan said, with the focus possibly being on the awarding of contracts to private companies for services related to the Iraq war. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Dorgan are expected to officially announce their plans to step up their oversight of the administration Monday at a Capitol Hill news conference.
“Clearly, there are a lot of areas in which the government is broken and we need to expose any malfeasance, corruption and misuse of official resources,” said Susan McCue, Reid’s chief of staff. “Senator Reid looks forward to reforming government with Senator Dorgan in the new year.”
Already, Reid has signaled that he will launch an aggressive public relations campaign to promote the Democratic agenda in the 109th Congress.
The Nevada Democrat is creating a “war room” to serve as a rapid-response operation designed to counter the Republican message, which is amplified by the White House’s bully pulpit.
This burst of activity comes after watching the party lose four seats in November, including that of Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Without subpoena power, Dorgan acknowledged, it will be difficult to compel testimony before his panel. But he vowed that Democrats would use their standing as elected officials to convince witnesses that they should cooperate. And he pledged to help shield whistleblowers who come forward to report fraud.
“We will use whatever capabilities we have to be helpful to people,” Dorgan said. “Whistleblowers should not be penalized. They should be rewarded.”
Dorgan said that before Democrats hold a hearing, they will ask their Republican colleagues to do so within the committee structure. If denied, then Dorgan said they will move forward with their own investigation.
“Our first wish would be [that] the majority party decides to have honest-to-goodness oversight hearings,” he said. “But they have not and will not. So we are going to do what the Republicans will not do. We are going to institutionalize it and brand it and go at it hard.”
This new endeavor shuts the door on a Dorgan candidacy for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, an idea in which he was asked last week to entertain.
“I am not a candidate for the job,” he said. “And I don’t anticipate being DNC chairman.”