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Democrats Boost Oversight Funds

Using their newfound power of the purse, Senate Democrats last week inserted millions of dollars into the emergency war spending bill to boost investigations and oversight of what they say is the Bush administration’s misuse of power and the squandering of taxpayer funds.

The money was primarily slipped into the supplemental measure as unrequested funding for various federal government inspectors general, who are charged with auditing the activities of Cabinet departments and agencies in a nonpartisan manner. Democrats said they want to provide the funds to continue investigations such as Justice Department IG Glenn Fine’s probe into the FBI’s misuse of national security letters and ongoing inquiries of contractor abuses in Iraq.

“We think the IGs are independent and that we can rely on them for unbiased investigations, and that’s why we’re beefing them up,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Indeed, the $121.6 billion Senate supplemental spending bill, which will be on the floor this week, includes $500,000 for Fine’s office to oversee the FBI’s implementation of changes to the way it uses national security letters to obtain citizens’ personal and business records and $10 million for the FBI to comply with the IG’s recommendations.

Additionally, the bill would provide $1.3 million for the State Department’s inspector general and $4 million for the inspector general for the United States Agency for International Development, of which $3 million would be for use in Iraq and $1 million in Afghanistan. The Bush administration did not request any of those funds.

“Sen. Byrd has said from Day One that there will be no more rubberstamps, that there will be no more blank checks for this administration,” said Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).“The Senate Appropriations Committee will insist on oversight.”

Meanwhile, Democrats provided, but did not increase, the $35 million White House request for the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, but they did extend his authority for an additional year. That position was “funded sufficiently” in the White House request, Gavin explained.

However, Democrats did insert language in the supplemental requiring the State Department to allow inspectors from the Government Accountability Office to stay in Iraq for up to six months at a time. While the Defense Department has approved such stays, Democrats are suspicious that the State Department is trying to block consistent oversight in Iraq by not providing GAO employees with clearance to stay in the country for more than a few weeks.

In a March 12 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Harkin and 21 other Democratic Senators wrote, “Such access is essential to ending the misuse of taxpayer funds that have been repeatedly documented in Iraq. We ask that you give this matter your prompt attention.”

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) criticized the additional oversight provisions, saying Democrats were “trying to push an agenda on the backs of our men and women in uniform,” whose missions in Iraq and Afghanistan the bill is designed to fund.

Lott also said the Democrats may not get what they’re looking for just because they provided funds for IG offices. He noted that he secured $1 million last year for the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general to look into insurance company fraud in the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the IG missed this month’s deadline for reporting to Congress.

“Republican or Democrat, these IGs don’t do much,” Lott said. He added, of the investigation he requested, “I don’t expect much to come of it.”

But Democrats say they relied on IG reports while Republicans ran Congress to ferret out information they could not get from the administration. And as the White House and various Cabinet departments seemingly continue to erect hurdles to the Democratic Congress’ access to documents and information, the IGs are likely to continue playing an important role in Democratic oversight efforts.

Indeed, the Justice Department IG probe of the FBI’s misuse of national security letters came about because Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ordered the report as part of last year’s reauthorization of the terrorism prevention USA PATRIOT Act, according to his spokesman, David Carle.

Leahy, who serves as Senate Judiciary Chairman, also is responsible for the additional money for the State Department and USAID IGs, because of his chairmanship of the Appropriations subcommittee on State and foreign operations, Carle said.

“The IGs have been the only effective eyes and ears on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan in a chaotic situation,” Carle said. “The Defense and State departments have far too little control over how their money has been spent, and the IGs have documented problems that have been valuable to those agencies and to Congress in trying to come to terms with the vast amounts that have been wasted and misplaced.”

Besides funding for Iraq and FBI investigations, the supplemental also includes $5 million in unrequested funding for the Housing and Urban Development Department’s inspector general. The funds are intended for an audit of the department’s use of HUD funds to help victims of Katrina and Rita.

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