Lieberman's oversight activities have watchdogs howling

Some activists and Senate Democrats question Connecticut senator's chairmanship of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A Senate hearing Friday took aim at former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, whose contract work was blamed by witnesses for the electrocution of up to 13 Americans. But the heated hearing also offered ammunition against another frequent target of the left: Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

The hearing was held by the Democratic Policy Committee -- the seventh DPC has held on profiteering and waste in Iraq since Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006.

Senate Democrats began the hearings in 2004 to highlight what they called a failure by the Republican-led Senate to oversee war spending. That the partisan panel continues despite Democratic control of the chamber strikes some lawmakers, aides and watchdog groups as a sign of Lieberman's failure to aggressively oversee the Bush administration.

"The reason the DPC is doing this is because Lieberman isn't," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think it would just kill him to say anything negative about the Bush administration," Sloan said.

Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he is "not critical of anyone" but called the DPC hearings "the only way for Americans to hear about these issues."

Faced with Lieberman's support for the presidential bid of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calls for Senate Democrats to punish Lieberman in November are growing. Last week the group "Lieberman Must Go" gave the Democratic Steering Committee 43,000 signatures demanding it strip Lieberman of his chairmanship.

Liberals rage at Lieberman's views on the Iraq war, his willingness to speak at the Republican National Convention and even his use of the phrase "Democrat Party." In urging that Lieberman lose his committee, critics have so far given less attention to how he runs it.

More quietly, liberal activists and Senate Democrats question Lieberman's chairmanship. Critics say Lieberman investigates issues, such as Islamic extremism, that involve little criticism of the White House and ignores governmental affairs matters, particularly contracting in Iraq.

While such criticism remains overshadowed by his campaign work, detractors hope Lieberman's oversight record factors in Democrats' evaluation of his position after November.

"If you actually had a Democrat running that committee, you would see investigations of war contracting abuses. ... You'd see investigations on Hurricane Katrina," said Matt Stoller, a Lieberman Must Go spokesman.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said decisions on Lieberman's status will occur after the election. A Reid spokesman declined to comment on Lieberman's work as chairman, as did several committee Democrats.

Lieberman and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staffers reject criticism of the panel's record, pointing to involvement in the creation of the Homeland Security Department, implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations and ethics reform.

"We like to do legislation," Lieberman said. "We don't like investigating ... just to see who is at fault."

Lieberman said he has moved scores of small government operations bills and co-sponsored Senate-passed legislation to add competition to federal contracting and increase the independence of agency inspectors general. He has opposed the White House by pushing a bill to cut off its power to delay release of presidential records.

Lieberman held a hearing on private security contractors in January and has chaired hearings on federal procurement problems. He plans a hearing on defense contract auditing later this month, committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said.

But critics inevitably contrast Lieberman's oversight work with Dorgan's, and with the hectic pace of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., whose frequent hearings on senior administration officials' missteps often draw headlines.

"Every committee should step up to its responsibility," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when asked about contracting oversight. "I applaud Dorgan for doing what he is doing. Waxman is doing a great job in the House."

Lieberman called comparisons to Waxman misplaced. The senator said he avoids overlap with Waxman's investigations and noted his jurisdiction covers that of both Waxman's panel and the House Homeland Security Committee.

Waxman has more than 40 investigators, committee staffers said. Lieberman's full committee has two investigators, Phillips said.

Limited resources mean that while Lieberman tries to address government operations, "he views his work pushing the government to shore up our homeland defense as of utmost importance," she said.

Many critics call Lieberman's oversight approach a product of his politics. Elected in 2006 as an independent, he caucuses with the Democrats while voting with Republicans on national security issues.

Others point more to personality. "To be really good at oversight, you have to be very comfortable making people uncomfortable," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "I don't think he's cut from that cloth."