The day news broke that the Iraqi government was revoking the license of Blackwater USA over a questionable Baghdad shootout that killed 17 civilians, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) announced plans for hearings to probe the State Department’s reliance on private security contractors.
On that same day — Sept. 17 — Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) announced two firefighting grants for the towns of Bolton and Willington in his home state.
Though the two committees have similar investigative powers and mandates to uncover waste, fraud and abuse of government funds, Waxman has held eight hearings on Iraq and contracting abuses this year, while Lieberman has held only one on reconstruction challenges in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
And though Waxman rarely has missed an opportunity to fire off angry letters to the administration over potential waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct among government contractors, Lieberman — along with his predecessor and current ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — has shown relatively little interest in tackling those issues.
“Rep. Waxman has taken a very hound-dog approach to contracting and federal spending issues, whereas Sens. Collins and Lieberman have taken a more conservative approach,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the nonpartisan Project for Government Oversight.
Lieberman acknowledged in a recent interview that he has not been as focused on government contracting abuses as he has on the homeland security aspects of his panel.
“I’ve tended to want to focus on how we protect the homeland from terrorism, so we’ve done a lot of that,” he said.
Though Lieberman said he gets “angry when I hear about fraud or corruption in the spending of American dollars,” he said he in part chooses what to have hearings on by “watching who else is doing what,” noting that Waxman has held several hearings on Iraq oversight, as have the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.
“You’ve got to set your own priorities, and it was clear to me that other committees were going to pick this up,” said Lieberman.
Lieberman also noted that the House split government oversight and homeland security between two different committees, making their caseload more manageable.
Still, critics say they don’t understand why Lieberman has not followed Waxman’s example, and they say his support for the war should make him more likely, not less, to hold oversight hearings.
“He supports the war. So why does he not investigate the things that undermine the mission?” asked Charlie Cray, director of the nonpartisan watchdog Center for Corporate Policy.
Cray added that with recent allegations that Blackwater employees killed civilians, in addition to long-standing reports that contractors such as Halliburton repeatedly have over-billed the government and provided substandard services to the military, Waxman couldn’t do all the work alone.
“It’s a target-rich environment, and they have been singularly unimpressive in the amount of work that they have done,” Cray said of Lieberman’s panel. “There’s always room for more hearings. Waxman and others have their plates full as well.”
Meanwhile, Lieberman’s lack of zeal for going after government contracting appears contrary to the wishes of his own party leadership, which began an “Iraq Accountability Project” last year in response to what they said was the Republican-led Congress’ reluctance to look into contractor abuses. The project, which began with unofficial hearings in the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, has continued this year, and Democrats have taken pains to point out that they are now using official bipartisan panels to conduct their oversight.
Senate Democrats are careful not to criticize Lieberman for fear of further alienating him from the party, but he continues to be dogged by questions of party loyalty, given his unflinching support for the Iraq War and his decision to run as a self-described Independent Democrat after losing his Democratic primary bid in last year’s election.
But with a lack of action in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, some Senate Democrats appear to be looking for other venues to explore contracting abuses.
Last month, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) held a hearing entitled “Abuses in Private Security and Reconstruction Contracting in Iraq: Ensuring Accountability, Protecting Whistleblowers.” But he did so in an unofficial capacity as chairman of the Senate DPC.
Dorgan denied that he held the hearing “because someone else wasn’t doing it.” He said he was just continuing the hearings he began in the 109th Congress — when Democrats were in the minority and had no official gavels — and said he had the consent of the authorizing committees.
Lieberman said he was “glad” Dorgan held the hearing.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sponsored an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill last month to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate contracting abuses in Iraq.
The freshman McCaskill has made government contracting abuses one of her highest priorities as a Senator. Unlike many Members who have visited Iraq to find out how the war is progressing, she spent her entire trip to the region with military procurement officers.
“Frankly, what that trip convinced me of is that we are not preparing our military to contract at this level,” McCaskill said. She added, “Any of these Senate committees could do nothing but this for the next year and probably not get as much done as we need to get done.”
McCaskill rejected the notion that her amendment was a response to a lack of oversight in Lieberman’s committee. She acknowledged that she has asked Lieberman for hearings on contracting abuses but denied that she had been “rebuffed.”
“I have certainly weighed in and said we need to be doing more in this area, but I also am cognizant of the fact that we have a lot of work in Homeland Security … and that’s very important,” she said. “So it’s not like none of these committees is working hard. Everyone is working hard. I just don’t think we’ve focused on this enough, and I think the commission is the way to do it.”
Her amendment, jointly sponsored with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), was adopted by voice vote.
Despite the criticisms, Amey said Lieberman and Collins should get credit for passing a contractor accountability bill through the panel in August, and he praised them for holding several hearings on the government’s handling of contractors during clean up from Hurricane Katrina.
And it’s not as if Waxman is dying to share the spotlight that’s been trained on his committee all year.
As one House Democratic aide noted, “People generally feel there’s enough oversight going on.”