Democrats step up demands for probes of administration, agencies

They are rediscovering a time-honored tradition of ordering "fishing trips" through all manner of bureaucratic documents.

Over the last several weeks, Democrats have rediscovered one of the few politically useful tools available to the minority party under our two-party system -- the demand for congressional investigations. This time-honored activity has been used by Democrats and Republicans alike to harass and challenge an executive branch no longer in their control by calling for probes into potentially scandalous administration actions.

The tactic of launching an inquiry, followed by an investigation, followed by an outside special prosecutor and followed, in at least one case, by impeachment proceedings, was refined during the 1990s, when powerful and not-so powerful GOP ranking members, and then GOP chairmen, would unleash their staff on virtually every nook and cranny of the federal government -- and much of Arkansas -- in search of a smoking gun to bring President Clinton to heel.

Even before taking power, Republicans forced Democrats to launch a series of investigations culminating in the start of the infamous Whitewater inquiry in 1994, which would dog Clinton throughout his term and eventually morph into the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Meanwhile, various House and Senate committees embarked on constant "fishing trips" demanding boxes of information from federal agencies on almost any imaginable topic, using interns and staff to find that one needle in the haystack of bureaucratic documents.

But with few exceptions, Democrats have taken only half-hearted stabs at digging into the Bush White House's laundry bins. To be sure, House Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and a few others have dogged Bush, and in several cases -- most notably Vice President Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton -- they appear to have struck upon an issue just waiting to be "-gated."

Some Democrats blame their lack of oversight activities on Republicans. "It's up to the chairman," said Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. While Lieberman did say the committee should look into the issue of "general expenditures of funds on the war," he did not endorse the efforts of his fellow committee member Lautenberg and others to launch a formal investigation into Halliburton.

Lieberman has been hesitant to use the few parliamentary tricks available to Democrats to either force the committee to launch investigations or, at the very least, put GOP members on record as opposing inquiries into Halliburton and other issues, according to sources close to the committee.

But other Democrats have embraced the tactic, demanding formal investigations into Halliburton, allegations that White House officials purposefully withheld information from Congress about the ballooning costs of Bush's Medicare proposals, and whether high-level Bush officials signed off on memos redefining torture.

It remains to be seen how long Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other leaders will stick with the emphasis on oversight. The answer probably depends on whether they can muster the party loyalty and public muscle to force Republicans to abandon their president and concede to formal investigations -- as Democrats did in 1994 when former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., then-House Banking ranking member Jim Leach, R-Iowa, and other Republicans forced an annoyed and extremely reluctant Democratic majority to begin the Whitewater hearings.