Department chiefs can expect rough going on the Hill.
Forty-one freshmen House Democrats swept into Congress on Election Day, more than twice as many as elected in the classes of 2002 and 2004. The Senate has eight new Democrats, four times as many as in 2004. By and large, the newcomers are an experienced bunch. Among the new House members, 12 have run for Congress before and 36 have held elective office. In the Senate, three new members are moving up after stints in the House. Nearly all the rookies will arrive in Washington after campaigns in which they concentrated their fire on President George W. Bush.
That makes it highly unlikely they will be deferential toward the White House. But facing its largest class of Democratic freshmen is the least of the administration's concerns in the 110th Congress. More worrisome is the top of the congressional food chain where a passel of Democratic committee chairmen will be demanding answers and explanations from an administration unaccustomed and averse to giving them.
In the Republican-controlled Congress, oversight fell by the wayside; it was easy for the Bush administration to ignore queries from Democrats such as Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., while they were in the minority. But now that subpoena power is in their hands, Capitol Hill is going to become a much more unpleasant place for administration officials.
In the Senate, California Democrat Barbara Boxer has promised "vigorous oversight" from her chairman's perch on the Environment and Public Works Committee. No administration witness who has been singed by her questions in the past will relish repeating the experience. The FBI will get a good scrubbing before incoming Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; the FBI's counter-terrorism efforts might be closely scrutinized by an Intelligence Committee led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program also will be of great interest to Leahy.
The Homeland Security Department is another sitting duck. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is likely to thoroughly probe fraud and abuse in federal contracts. The committee also is likely to extend the mandate of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. Complicating matters is Lieberman's unusual party status as an "Independent Democrat"-his helmsmanship will be closely monitored by Democratic partisans who, in the past, have accused him of being too passive on oversight.
The House, of course, probably will offer the most drama, largely because of the return to power of Waxman and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. The powerful chairman of Energy and Commerce from 1981 until 1994, Dingell returns to his former post with two areas of immediate interest-the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the administration's energy policy.
Waxman, who will chair the House Government Reform Committee, is alternately de-scribed by his colleagues, usually admiringly, as a "bulldog" or a "barracuda." When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants a thorough investigation, Waxman will be the go-to guy; he'll be charged with looking into matters ranging from domestic security spending to Hurricane Katrina response.
The bad news for the administration doesn't stop there. Incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., wants to investigate the administration's plan to impose mandatory animal identification on livestock owners; new Homeland Security Committee chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has signaled he expects to see Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff a lot more frequently.
Then there is Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who plans to create a new subcommittee on oversight and investigations. He told National Journal in September that his plans, should Democrats win a majority, would be "oversight, oversight, oversight!"