The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Democratic Congress
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As the year draws to a close, it will be tempting for pundits -- liberal and otherwise -- to despair at the Democrats' inability to wield their new congressional leadership to affect real and swift change in the country. After all, the war in Iraq not only continues, but 2007 was its deadliest year. FISA presents a greater danger to American civil liberties today than it did when the Democrats took their gavels in January. And the radiant vision of Karl Rove being escorted down Pennsylvania Avenue to jail never came to pass.
But there have been successes, too. Many have emerged as part of an aggressive oversight effort, which has dragged a number of scandals out of the shadows and into the cleansing daylight. Democrats in both the House and Senate have led the way in rooting out corrupt leadership at the Department of Justice, in revealing just how shadowy the president's domestic spying program was (and how unpopular it was among members of the federal law enforcement community), and in alerting the country to the damaging and deadly role private military contractors play in war zones.
So as we all take the measure of 2007, here is mine: The good, the bad, and the ugly in a year's worth of congressional oversight.
Quiet as a mouse. There certainly have been gaffes, softballs, and missed opportunities. And the most obvious are found in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security -- the Senate's version of Rep. Henry Waxman's Oversight Committee in the House. Unlike Waxman's enthusiastic probing, the Senate chair conducted zero proactive investigations into Bush administration malfeasance. It's chairman? Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman.
Fit for a Prince. Likewise, when Erik Prince, the now-infamous CEO of private military contractor Blackwater, was called to testify before Waxman's committee on Oct. 2, many assumed he'd be slaughtered. Blackwater contractors had recently massacred more than a dozen Iraqis and had been implicated in a host of other atrocities. Waxman even came armed with a long and damning report about the company's misdeeds. But by the end of the hearing, Prince had found his stride. He shifted the focus from Blackwater to structural problems with the war effort in Iraq and refused to disclose how much of his company's billion dollars in federal contracts constituted profit. He closed by graciously thanking the committee for its hospitality. "Glad I could come here and correct some facts," Prince said.
Naming names -- of sources. Over the summer, the House Judiciary Committee created an electronic tip line for whistleblowers in the Justice Department. Do-gooders provided enough personal information to allow the committee to investigate, but were assured the information would be kept in confidence. And it was -- until the committee accidentally sent a list of the whistleblowers' e-mail addresses to every e-mail address that had been entered at the site, including Vice President Dick Cheney's public e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Foresight is 20/20. The blunders weren't confined to investigations. Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer helped Republican Judiciary Committee members endorse the nomination of then-designate Attorney General Michael Mukasey, despite Mukasey's equivocal answers to questions about torture. The full Senate confirmed him by a vote of 53-40 on Nov. 8. Just one month later, the Department of Justice revealed that CIA videotapes of two detainees being interrogated -- and allegedly waterboarded -- had been destroyed, despite widespread objections among members of the government in the know. Given Mukasey's unwillingness to describe waterboarding as torture -- and therefore a crime -- some, including Senator Joe Biden, D-Del., want an independent investigation of the matter. After all, can the Justice Department honestly lead an inquiry into a coverup of something it doesn't even regard as a crime?
But the year started on a better foot for Democrats. Mukasey's nomination was in fact the result of months of congressional tenacity in uncovering the administration's lies and distortions about its firing of U.S. attorneys and its warrantless wiretapping program. Throughout the spring and summer, the House and Senate Judiciary committees uncovered documents and held hearings that shook the Justice Department to its foundation.
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Brian Beutler is the Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including AlterNet.