Friendly President Doesn’t Deter Dorgan

Posted May 22, 2009 at 5:49pm

Democrats finally have a lock on power in Washington, and with it the authority to investigate, prosecute and subpoena.

So why is Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, continuing to use his unofficial panel to probe alleged abuses by military contractors working in Iraq, just as he did before President Barack Obama took office?

“There are still significant issues, and this continues work that I started a year ago. … I want to, obviously, pursue this to its conclusion,— Dorgan said. “My hope is, this will reflect change. There’s a lot of work to do.—

Last Wednesday, Dorgan held a hearing on whether U.S. military contractors performed shoddy electrical work on defense installations in Iraq, which resulted in the death of several troops by electrocution. Dorgan acknowledged that a Democratic Defense Department could face criticism as his panel’s inquiry moves forward but said he would not be dissuaded.

Dorgan said he has kept the relevant committee chairmen in the loop and that at least two of them expressed support for his panel’s investigation.

Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he has always supported the DPC hearings on alleged contractor abuses in Iraq. And Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said there’s enough of a need for investigating on this issue to go around.

“I’m happy that the Policy Committee gets into substantive matters,— Lieberman said. “There’s a lot for everybody to do.—

Both the Democratic and Republican Senate conferences have policy committees, which essentially act as a partisan arm of the leadership structure. The policy panels’ hearings are often used to score political points and those invited to testify are usually picked accordingly.

In the Senate, the policy committees tend to be particularly useful for the minority party — or the majority when it does not also control the White House. The panels can serve as a vehicle for generating news coverage or bringing political pressure to bear outside of the official process, such as the presidential bully pulpit or a standing Congressional committee or subcommittee.

As Policy Committee chairman, Dorgan has a seat at the leadership table. But the veteran North Dakota Democrat has at times been viewed as the odd man out and periodically has latched onto issues that the rest of the Democratic leadership deemed distracting. Dorgan’s ongoing examination of military contracting abuses is not one of those issues.

Earlier this year, Democratic Conference leaders blessed Dorgan’s desire to keep the policy panel as an investigatory tool, and one focused generally on accountability issues. The feeling was that the panel could serve a politically useful role because the hearings are conducted by Democrats and framed around the Democratic perspective.

According to a senior Democratic Senate aide, Dorgan’s hearings can “highlight— important issues in a way that standing legislative committees cannot.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who got involved with the military contracting issue soon after arriving in the Senate in 2007, lent her support to Dorgan’s effort late last week.

McCaskill appeared to suggest that more needs to be done through official channels to uncover contracting abuses and to change the culture so that the problems cease. But she said Dorgan’s work is still important.

“The more we bring contracting problems to light, the better. This is something that Byron was banging on when [the Policy Committee] was the only place we had to really bring it to light, and I would be the last person who would say stop,— McCaskill said. “There are so many contracting problems, that it really doesn’t matter how many cooks we have in the kitchen, it’s going to help improve the meal.—