Congress Is a Sleeping Watchdog — But We Intend to Change That

In 1940, as it became more and more evident that the United States would soon be entering World War II, Congress began to prepare by appropriating $10 billion in defense contracts. Early the next year, stories of widespread contractor mismanagement surfaced.

A little-known Senator at the time, Harry S. Truman, responded by climbing into his car for a 10,000-mile tour of U.S. military bases so he could look for himself.

Truman’s effort uncovered countless examples of wasteful and even fraudulent contracting abuses, prompting the Democratic Congress to establish a special investigating committee. It became known as the Truman Committee, and it kept a steely eye on how Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s War Department was spending billions of dollars in the war effort.

It saved taxpayers millions, and — since shoddy supplies and equipment hardly helped the troops — it also no doubt saved countless lives.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

America is at war in Iraq. Congress has committed nearly $200 billion into the war and reconstruction. Meanwhile, serious reports of contract abuse and fraud occur regularly.

This time, however, instead of launching vigorous oversight on these matters, this Congress responds by taking a nap.

Serious Congressional oversight of how money on the war in Iraq — or for that matter, how most of the $2 trillion Congress annually appropriates — is spent simply isn’t happening.

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to carefully monitor how the executive branch spends those funds. It’s at the core of our system of checks and balances. But these days, Congressional oversight has become nearly officially extinct. The Congressional watchdog is asleep.

Of course, the Republican majority hasn’t always taken such a casual approach to Congressional oversight. The last time a Democrat occupied the White House, it seemed that a new oversight or investigative hearing popped up in the Republican-controlled Congress every 15 minutes.

During the Clinton administration, there were nearly 50 oversight investigations or calls for an independent counsel investigation on just about everything: the White House travel office, the Whitewater land deal, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s finances, fundraising by administration officials and the president’s creation of a national monument in Utah. Republicans even launched an investigation into how White House Christmas cards were mailed.

Today, however, it’s a very different story.

For example, reports that pre-war intelligence was misused, or that pre-war planning was rushed or weak, have never been examined by Congressional oversight committees. Evidence of Iraq war contracting abuses is common, but at the one hearing the Republican majority held on the issue, they spent most of their time defending Halliburton and its “no bid” contracts rather than looking for answers.

There have been no hearings on who leaked the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, or which special interests served on Vice President Cheney’s secret energy task force, which ultimately wrote the administration’s energy bill.

These matters have cried out for vigorous oversight and investigation to protect taxpayers and the integrity of national policy.

But like Rip Van Winkle, Congress continues to operate like it’s in a deep sleep. Republicans are reluctant to conduct oversight, of course, because they don’t want to cause problems for a Republican administration.

“Party has trumped institutional responsibility,” Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times in May 2004.

Truman was not blinded by such partisanship. He understood Congressional oversight was a constitutional responsibility. It’s not about embarrassing anybody. It’s about protecting taxpayers.

These days, Congress is asleep at the switch because the Republicans who control Congress prefer it that way.

But that’s about to change.

Acting through the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Senate Democrats are about to launch an aggressive, vigorous series of oversight and investigative hearings to look out for the interests of taxpayers as the executive branch spends the $2 trillion Congress appropriates each year.

This is not about “gotcha” politics or being partisan. It’s about being aggressive in looking out for the interests of American taxpayers.

We’re adding staff investigators and intend to implement an active, aggressive agenda. A committee on oversight and investigations in the Democratic Policy Committee will direct this effort, which will include public hearings at least monthly. The first will be held in this month.

If Republican-controlled Congressional committees won’t do the oversight the Constitution expects of them, then we will.

Republicans are welcome to join us and participate in our hearings any time. And if the Republican committees begin real oversight hearings on real issues, we will no longer need to conduct our hearings. But until things change, our hearings will be the only real oversight hearings.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is the Senate Minority Leader. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.