The final months of George W. Bush's presidency saw an emboldened Democratic Congress set out, as one pundit put it, to "blacken the skies with subpoenas." The party rained enough furious oversight down on the outgoing administration that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bragged to the Public Broadcasting Service about how "many people have resigned from the executive branch because they've gotten a call from Congress to come in and testify."
Then came the 2008 presidential election, and, with it, total control of the government shifted to President Obama and his party on Capitol Hill. Fury and oversight suddenly were out, displaced as a political priority by a determination to remake health care and a clamor to do anything necessary about global warming.
Democrats had ruling majorities in both the House and Senate, but their goal of "Medicare for everyone" proved to be tantalizingly just beyond reach, so they settled instead for $2.6 trillion worth of meddling. Then 10 percent unemployment inconveniently gave average Americans a taste of how the Democrats' "cap-and-trade" construct might impact families in the real world, so action ceased as election day neared.
No wonder they lost their enthusiasm for oversight. I know they did because I have been pressing all year for the Obama administration to explain how implementation of the president's health care law is faring and why his environmental team seems to care more for United Nations opinions than working families and a faltering economy, and for the Democratic leaders of Congress to inquire. But as the half-answers, evasions and outright snubs piled up, it became clear that Congress wasn't going to ask and the White House wasn't about to tell.
It's up to the people to decide what happens next. It seems plain to many that the president and Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, have made a mess of things, and if voters choose to take control of the House from their hands and reinvest their trust in Republicans, I mean to be prepared. I'm working hard right now to elect Republican candidates and to make Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio the next speaker. If the people agree and make Republicans the new majority in the House, I will ask my colleagues for the privilege of serving as chairman of the committee I love, the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Our first job will be to find out what's gone wrong. That's why the return of vigorous congressional oversight is going to be a top priority for me and the committee next year. Here are just 10 of the things I intend to uncover during the first six months of 2011:
c Why Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), has concluded that the president's health care law will not rein in rising costs and federal spending. Back in April, 23 Republican members of the committee joined me in urging Democrats to call a hearing to get the facts from CMS. But Democrats evidently weren't interested, and neither an answer nor a hearing was forthcoming. This hearing will, however, be high on our agenda.
c Why Mr. Foster was unable to project costs of the president's bill until after it was passed by the House.
c Why companies have told the Securities and Exchange Commission that losing support for retiree prescription drug plans will increase their costs. When they did that, the committee called a hearing, plainly to allege politics. Then they abruptly canceled the hearing when it became clear that the "hearing" had been conceived as a mugging to stop the public complaining about this aspect of the president's health care reforms.
c Why Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius distributed promotional brochures at taxpayer expense that touted "improvements to Medicare Advantage, the program Obamacare will cut by 50 percent.
c Why the secretary issued a gag order to insurers when they began to talk about the possibility of Obamacare forcing rate increases.
c Why Dr. Donald Berwick, the unconfirmed appointee who runs the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has been unavailable to meet with our committee for six months.
c Why Mrs. Sebelius has been unavailable to meet with the committee for nine months.
c Why the more candid Lisa P. Jackson, President Obama's chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, proudly refuses to analyze her agency's actions to determine either the potential job losses it will cause or the pressure they will put on U.S. companies to relocate overseas. As she put it, studying job losses caused by EPA would have "limited utility."
c Why the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the White House, Nancy Sutley, doesn't appear to know what her responsibility is under the president's State of the Union promise that "jobs must be our No. 1 focus."
c Why the Obama administration's Federal Communications Commission thinks the Internet needs federal government regulation for the first time.
Congress' oversight function is not a license to bully political opponents. Our permanent, constitutional and bipartisan responsibility is, however, to know what is going on in order to devise policy that takes into account actual people who have to pay for and live under our decisions.
This is only a start on the dozens of issues that deserve attention, but I think we're just 10 hearings away from finding the workaday details of how the Obama administration's health and economics policies turned massive, stunningly expensive, unworkable and unwanted. Now we only have silence, not facts. When we squeeze out the facts, we can diagnose the problems and begin to fix anything that's useful and fixable, and we can jettison what isn't before the administration's miscalculations do further damage.
Getting the job done is going to take more than the gauzy notion that we should simply restart vigorous oversight. Everybody knows that. It's going to take a thoughtful plan geared to pinning down real facts, with someone behind that plan who is just stubborn enough to make it stick when the debate gets rough.
Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
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