By Richard E. Cohen
March 19, 2004For years, the House Government Reform Committee was known for its bitter partisanship. Much of the acrimony stemmed from the panel's high-profile badgering of Clinton administration officials, led by its hard-charging former chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. Compared with back then, relations between the committee's leaders these days seem practically harmonious.
Consider the committee's March 11 hearing on the Pentagon's controversial dealings with U.S. contractors in postwar Iraq. To be sure, ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., blasted the Bush administration for having "badly mismanaged" the rebuilding of Iraq. But Waxman also commended Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., for convening Capitol Hill's initial inquiry into allegations of favoritism and rip-offs by firms such as Halliburton and Bechtel.
Davis, for his part, warned that the committee takes its oversight responsibilities seriously, and he praised Waxman for raising "important questions" about the reconstruction, although the chairman ended the three-hour-plus session of grilling eight administration officials by defending most contractors as "a tough breed of cat." The committee plans additional hearings after the General Accounting Office issues a report this spring on contracting in Iraq.
While the hearing included some partisan shots from each side, it highlighted the transformation at the Government Reform panel since Davis took it over a year ago, when Burton stepped down because of term limits on committee chairmen. The session also said something about the evolution of Davis, who previously had been best known for his successful four-year stint as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and his encyclopedic knowledge of House districts.
Chairing the House committee with the largest staff and budget requires some of the same managerial skills as his old NRCC job. Of at least equal utility has been Davis's expertise in the complex details of federal procurement and management, which he gained during nearly two decades as general counsel to computer-services firm PRC, a Pentagon contractor. "September 11 showed the need for better integration of information systems across government," Davis said in an interview. "Procurement brings waste. But with competent technicians and the right vehicles, you can get results."
Davis's efforts receive little public attention outside the tight circle of federal managers and contractors, many of whom reside in his suburban district, based in wealthy Fairfax County, Va. But he has scored several legislative victories in his year as chairman. Congress enacted his proposals to change the Pentagon's civilian procurement operations, for example, and to reform the federal process for purchasing computer systems and software. Davis also shepherded the controversial law allowing vouchers for school children in the District of Columbia, which is part of the committee's jurisdiction. This legislative activism was a striking contrast to the panel's limited agenda under Burton.
"Doing these bills quietly was the only way to go. The unions hate any procurement reform, though I have to balance that because I have a lot of federal employees in my district," Davis said. "The public at large doesn't care about this. And I don't include it in campaign literature. But, as chairman, you try to pass legislation." He noted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tapped him to manage the Pentagon procurement reform initiative. "I'm no wuss," Davis said. "Republicans saw that I picked my fights."
Although most Democrats strongly opposed Davis's measures, the chairman said he and Waxman decided from the start "to be civil even when we had to fight." Davis said he has been willing to give Waxman "a stake" on issues that are important to Democrats -- such as provisions in last year's energy bill to promote hybrid cars and improve energy efficiency in federal buildings -- so long as such efforts don't interfere with the GOP agenda. The two committee leaders worked together on the panel's recent inquiries into mad-cow disease and the safety of drinking water in Washington. Both also hope to enact legislation this year to overhaul the financially troubled Postal Service.
"I get along with him personally," Waxman said. "We try to bridge differences, rather than polarize." Not surprisingly, Waxman added, "But if I were chairman, it would be different." House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who has long worked closely with Davis on regional and federal employee issues, said they continue to cooperate.
By no means has Davis tuned out the world of politics. Late last month, he briefed reporters on congressional campaigns on behalf of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of self-styled GOP moderates that counts Davis as a member. And while he carefully keeps his options open, Davis doesn't hide his interest in a possible run for the Senate, especially if 77-year-old Sen. John Warner, R-Va. -- a longtime legislative and political ally -- does not seek re-election in 2008.
But for now, Davis concluded, "I like what I'm doing. This is the right place for me personally."
By Richard E. Cohen
March 19, 2004