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Party’s Majority Status Shapes Oversight Tack

If the U.S. court system is an adversarial one, with each party presenting the best possible face of its argument, the public court in which Congressional oversight wars play out is like that, but on steroids.

Its participants, given only a few years in the game, show remarkable flexibility in their positions, with shifts usually deriving from which political party is in the hot seat.

Take House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton’s investigation into the deals struck by President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 to help pass his health care overhaul.

Upton has accused Obama of hypocrisy for vowing during the 2008 campaign to negotiate major legislation on C-SPAN only to cut a deal with the pharmaceutical industry, which Obama specifically attacked in campaign ads, behind closed doors during the health care debate.

The Upton probe’s latest document release on Friday showed deep involvement by senior White House officials in a shadowy political group that ran television ads boosting the health care law and touted in fundraising solicitations that the identity of donors would be kept secret.

Obama had a phrase for such groups — “a threat to democracy.”

Still, it was only a few years ago that Upton was defending then-Vice President Dick Cheney from similar criticism stemming from his closed-door energy task force meetings.

The energy task force, convened early in the George W. Bush administration to set a national energy policy, was attacked by Democrats for its secrecy and for highlighting the influence of the oil industry on the administration’s energy policies.

“I think Cheney probably believes that by keeping things as secretly held as possible, you increase your power,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told the Washington Post in 2004. “This administration wants to be immune from oversight.”

Upton did not agree with forcing the disclosure of those discussions.

In September 2004, he joined 29 Republican colleagues in voting down Energy and Commerce Democrats’ attempt to obtain the names, dates, subjects and locations involved in the Cheney energy task force meetings.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who at the time was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called the bid a “purely political ploy” and did not allow debate on the measure.

This enraged Waxman, who stormed out of the hearing room and said, “This whole committee is a farce,” according to  Energy and Environment Daily.

Fast-forward to present day. Now that Obama’s closed-door dealings with an industry sector are under investigation, rushing to his defense is — Waxman.

The California Democrat, now the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he believes the Obama administration — and the public — got a raw deal in the $80 billion agreement struck between the White House and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

“I thought that the pharmaceutical industry got a very good deal, and I thought the administration could’ve gotten more from them,” Waxman said.

But he does not see that as inherently untoward.

“President Obama’s efforts to enlist the support of private industry are exactly what presidents have always done to enact major legislation. His efforts are what Americans expect of their leaders,” Waxman said in a May 31 statement.

The documents released last week by House Republicans showed that then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina was more intimately involved than previously known in the creation of an organization that funded millions of dollars of advertisements to boost Obama’s health care overhaul.

Messina, who is now the campaign manager for Obama’s re-election bid, also asked AARP to run robocalls in Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) home state of Nebraska during a key moment of the bill’s debate, threatened “war” with the AFL-CIO over an advertising-related dispute and met dozens of times at the White House with a political consultant running the health care advertising campaign funded by industry groups.

Media reports in 2009 revealed the role of White House officials in creating Healthy Economy Now, a nonprofit political organization that touted in fundraising solicitations the fact that the names of donors would not be revealed.

But the documents offer a closer look at communications between the players involved.

Messina and Jon Selib, chief of staff to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), convened an April 2009 meeting at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to brief an array of organizations about the planned ad campaign.

Emails show that the “Harry and Louise” ads, which are often credited with helping derail President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care overhaul, were a specific request of Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff and now Chicago’s mayor.

“Rahm asked for Harry and Louise ads thru third party. We’ve already contacted the agent,” Bryant Hall, a top lobbyist for PhRMA, said in a July 7, 2009, email.

“There is nothing new here,” Waxman said in a statement about the document release. “The advertising by Healthy Economy Now and Americans for Stable Quality Care was reported in detail in almost real time in 2009 and 2010, as was the information about the group’s members and its formation.”

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