The No Surprises Rule
In the 110th Congress, oversight is about more than oversight.
When Congress left town for its Memorial Day recess, Republicans found the occasion a useful opportunity to highlight the paucity of legislative accomplishment by the new Democratic majority. "The first five months of the 110th Congress have been marked by broken promises, missed opportunities and gridlock caused by strife within the majority party's ranks," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
It's true that Democrats had little to show. By June, just one item from the "Six for '06" campaign agenda, a minimum wage increase, had been signed into law. But to focus on the legislative score card is to overlook the tremendous political value of another Democratic goal -aggressive oversight.
Oversight was a key theme that nearly every Democrat, whether incumbent or challenger, focused on during the 2006 campaign. They consistently criticized "a rubber stamp" Republican Congress that had failed miserably in its oversight responsibilities, and they made the case that it was an absence of any real checks and balances on the executive branch that led to the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, a misguided war on terrorism and a failed Iraq policy.
If nothing else, Democrats have delivered on this front. At the beginning of the 110th Congress, House Democratic committee chairmen added four new oversight and investigation subcommittees-on the Armed Services Committee, on Small Business, on Science and Technology, and a select intelligence oversight panel on Appropriations. To further telegraph the party's intentions, the Government Reform Committee was renamed the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Through the end of May, the House and Senate had held more than 250 oversight hearings. On just one day in March, there were 11 military-related oversight hearings; on one day in May, three different congressional committees voted to authorize subpoenas for various administration officials. There have been nearly 200 House and Senate oversight hearings on Iraq alone, and investigations have been launched into White House political activities, global warming, the Food and Drug Administration, Iraq reconstruction, the Valerie Plame affair, the Pentagon's alleged misinformation surrounding the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman,and the rescue of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch. All this has taken place in about six months' time.
A good portion of this activity has been dismissed by Republicans as partisan gamesmanship. But the oversight agenda still makes for good politics. Either by design or effect, it serves as a freshman protection initiative-the oversight subcommittees, which offer unusually rich opportunities for free publicity, have been populated with freshmen Democrats. Two from Florida landed on the Financial Services oversight subcommittee, where they will be able to hammer on regulatory issues surrounding the insurance industry-a central issue back home in the wake of recent hurricanes. Three of the five members on the Homeland Security oversight subcommittee are freshmen; it's even chaired by one. The Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations also is chaired by a freshman Democrat.
Aggressive oversight serves another political purpose, one that may prove invaluable as the ambitious Democratic legislative agenda runs up against the reality of the slim legislative majority. It throws red meat to the party's progressive wing, which harbors deep animosity toward the Bush administration, without actually passing liberal legislation that could endanger the reelection of the many Democrats elected from culturally conservative districts in 2006.
The danger, of course, is that congressional Democrats will overreach, crossing the fine line between legitimate oversight and partisan witch- hunting. As Republicans discovered in the late 1990s during the Clinton administration, that is a good way to pare down the size of your majority.
Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.