Forward Observer: Improvised Explosive Oversight

No doubt about it now, if there ever was: House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has planted more political IEDs [improvised explosive devices] under President Bush and his Republican allies than any member of Congress, particularly with his power to demand answers and issue subpoenas.

The bulldoggy, 68-year-old lawmaker from Los Angeles has obtained sworn testimony, letters or documents -- and in many cases all three categories of evidence -- to keep the IEDs exploding.

The mainstream press has been unable to ignore the blasts because many of them were front page news. These are just a few of the IEDs Waxman has detonated under the Bush administration:

  • Hurricane Katrina. Evidence that taxpayers got ripped off on the cleanup effort because of the Homeland Security Department's non-competitive contracting and its lack of supervision of the work. Ka-boom! Lamented Waxman during an interview with CongressDaily: Homeland Security leaders said, in effect, "'We don't know what to do. Let's hire a contractor to figure it out.' Then when it came to oversight, evaluation and accountability" of the cleanup work the government paid for, "they even wanted a private contractor to do that, even in cases where there was a conflict of interest."
  • Coast Guard ships. Testimony and documents that Homeland Security "contracted out ships to be built for the Coast Guard that didn't float," as Waxman put it in the interview. Ka-boom!
  • Iraq. A committee subpoena that Secretary of State Rice appear before Waxman's panel to explain allegedly false statements she made before Bush invaded Iraq to sell the war to Congress and the American people. Ka-boom!
  • Blackwater. Committee findings that a drunken member of this security firm hired by the State Department to protect its officials in Iraq shot the guard of the Iraqi vice president and was allowed by State to leave the country rather than face charges. Ka-boom!
  • U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Disclosures that construction of this giant edifice is rife with waste, fraud and abuse. Ka-boom!
  • Baghdad government corruption. Testimony by Radhi Hamza al-Radhi -- a judge who was tortured during Saddam Hussein's rule and former head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, where his cleanup efforts generated death threats and rocket attacks on his home -- that "corruption in Iraq today is rampant across the government, costing tens of billions of dollars, and has affected virtually every agency and ministry. Corruption has stopped possible advances by the government on the political level, on economic reconstruction, on basic services, amenities and infrastructure and on the rule of law." Ka-boom!

I asked Waxman why Republicans, who traditionally prided themselves on getting taxpayers their money's worth and trimming government programs, seemed so little interested these days in cracking down on wasteful performance by government contractors.

The chairman blamed a blind faith in private enterprise and the legacy of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who insisted that government work go to friends and contributors to the party, not Democrats.

"Certainly there is no shame" within the administration and Republican ranks in Congress about the rampant waste, fraud and abuse in government contracting, Waxman said.

"There's no sense that these so-called fiscal conservatives care about wasting taxpayer dollars. Ideologically, this administration believes that the government can do nothing right and the private sector can do nothing wrong; that if you hire the private sector to do the job, especially those who are well connected [to the administration], you'll get better performance at a lower cost. There is no oversight and evaluation by this administration to see if this theory is working. Forty cents out of every discretionary dollar is contracted out," he said.

So are Waxman's disclosures convincing any Republicans to vote with Democrats on such anti-Bush congressional measures as setting specific dates for getting American troops out of Iraq?

"I don't know what the impact is," Waxman replied. "I think it has to have had some impact on Republicans supporting the war. But I didn't see Republicans outraged, as I thought many would be, to hear [at his committee's hearing of Oct. 4] that the Iraqi government is so mired in corruption" that Bush's stated goals have little chance of being realized.

Waxman did not get into it, of course, but the Democratic majority has been unable to force Bush to change course on Iraq or exercise its power of the purse to give taxpayers more bang for their bucks.

So the outlook in Congress between now and next year's elections is a continued political stalemate on Iraq and no sense of mission about cracking down on wasteful contracting because of all the jobs at stake back home.

But Waxman said he has every intention of continuing his fight for accountability, whether by pressing the Bush administration to explain how it sold the Iraq war or spotlighting waste, fraud and abuse on government contracts.

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