- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

During my eight years in the House of Representatives, I saw some good oversight hearings, but not many. The majority of oversight hearings I witnessed as a member of the Republican majority during the Clinton administration were transparent efforts to grab a quick headline, or blustery exercises designed to score a temporary political point. Following the election of George W. Bush in 2000, any pretense of meaningful oversight was jettisoned in favor of using congressional power to support a president of the same party. It was therefore with some degree of interest that I awaited the start of the 110th Congress — under control of the Democratic Party for the first time in a dozen years — to see if Congress would reassert its constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government, and begin at long last to carry out its responsibility to oversee the executive branch. Thus far, the results are mixed. Some Democratic chairmen already are exercising their responsibilities and conducting substantive, relevant and professional oversight. Vermont’s Sen. Pat Leahy, for example, already has convened and chaired several hearings delving into civil liberties and how they are faring under the administration’s self-declared “Global War on Terror.” Other chairmen, unfortunately, appear not yet ready or willing to set aside partisan animosities that have been boiling beneath the surface during their 12 years in the minority. Take California Rep. Henry Waxman, now chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a committee with broad jurisdiction over virtually the entire executive branch. The nearly 4-year-old war in and occupation of Iraq — during which time Congress simply gave the Bush administration whatever it asked for while asking virtually no questions itself — has created a host of important questions over the manner in which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent. The newly ensconced Democratic leadership in the House put the administration on notice this cozy relationship could no longer be taken for granted. The first volley in this new focus fell to Mr. Waxman, who announced his committee would hold hearings to look into the management of the Iraq war, and specifically the relationship between — and cost of — the U.S. military and other agencies of the government contracting out responsibilities that in wars past were carried out by the government itself. Chief among these functions is providing security for U.S. forces and personnel in Iraq — from the burly and heavily armed guards sporting designer sunglasses who guard VIPs in Iraq, to more mundane activities like ensuring the security of truck convoys ferrying kitchen equipment — private companies are carrying out functions once undertaken by our military and other federal personnel. The issue before Mr. Waxman’s committee as it began its first hearing Feb. 7 were legitimate and numerous. Yet, rather than begin a measured, professional and structured series of inquiries into the authorities underlying this relationship between private security contractors and the government — and the manner in which those companies are paid — the committee immediately veered off into matters outside the responsibility of Congress. The hearing, “Iraq Private Contractor Oversight,” turned out to be a launching pad from which volleys were lobbed at one particular contractor that has been in the news recently — Blackwater. While this large company headquartered in Moyock, N.C., certainly needs to explain what services it provides the U.S. government, how it provides those services and how much it is paid, the manner in which this first congressional foray was made into these murky waters shed little light. This was primarily because the House Democrat leadership couldn’t resist chowing down on the red meat thrown to Speaker Nancy Pelosi two months ago by a California law firm representing the families of the four Blackwater personnel brutally killed and whose bodies were publicly desecrated in Fallujah three years ago. In a fawning December 2006 letter to Mrs. Pelosi — who hails also from California — the trial lawyer lambasted Blackwater as an “extremely Republican company[y]” engaged in “war profiteering,” even as he patted himself on the back for his “precedent-setting lawsuit” against Blackwater. Mr. Waxman and his colleagues on the committee he chairs took the bait tossed their way by these lawyers suing Blackwater, and used their first hearing on Iraq as a tool to influence and help the litigants in the pending civil lawsuit. This foray into ongoing litigation did little to help taxpayers understand the serious problems plaguing the Iraq occupation, and in fact it probably did little to help the parties to the lawsuit. But it did garner a few headlines. One can only hope the direction of future hearings on Iraq will be dictated by the responsibility of the Congress to serve as stewards of Americans’ tax dollars, rather than shilling for trial lawyers engaged in a civil lawsuit for damages. Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. Attorney there.

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