Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, headline writers had a field day with the bestowal of subpoena power on Henry Waxman, the dogged hound of oversight from California.

“Scariest guy in Washington,” said Time magazine’s cover story.

“The Waxman Cometh,” trumpeted the New Republic.

Those articles hang in the waiting area of Mr. Waxman’s office, alongside pictures of the congressman with each of the past five presidents and various other dignitaries.

His placid, even gentle demeanor may not show it, but the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform obviously relishes his pit-bull reputation, which he established as a subcommittee chairman focused on health and the environment from 1979 to 1994.

Since taking over as chairman of one of the most powerful investigative committees on Capitol Hill, the diminutive Democrat from Los Angeles has been the very constant thorn in the Bush administration’s side that everyone expected.

Mr. Waxman, 68, said in a recent interview that he simply has restored a sense of fairness to the same oversight committee that Democrats howled about when Republicans used it to issue more than 1,000 subpoenas against the Clinton White House in the 1990s.

“When I became chairman, I was determined to put oversight in a more appropriate and nonpartisan way,” he said, seated in his Rayburn Building office.

His esteemed opponents in the Republican Party beg to differ.

The White House did not want to comment publicly about its dissatisfaction with Mr. Waxman’s multiple points of attack.

However, the White House press office has a list at the ready for journalists, chronicling all the investigations initiated so far by Democrats in Congress. The list bristles with indignation.

Dems have started more than 650 investigations since early 2007, making at least 1,200 requests for documents, interviews or testimony and holding more than 1,300 oversight hearings, the list says.

The Bush administration has produced more than 1.8 million pages of documents at a manpower cost of more than 168,000 hours, and 1,100 executive-branch officials have testified before Congress, the list also says.

Only House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, comes close to matching Mr. Waxman’s responsibility for these massive numbers.

Think of some of the high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill over the past 18 months, and chances are they probably took place in Mr. Waxman’s committee: CIA spy Valerie Plame, Roger Clemens and steroids in baseball, the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the disappearance of White House e-mails; the list goes on.

The oversight committee chairman is the only House chairman who can issue subpoenas unilaterally, without a committee vote, and Mr. Waxman has been known for his take-no-prisoners approach since 1994, when he made tobacco executives swear under oath that nicotine was not addictive.

Most recently, Mr. Waxman has threatened to hold Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in contempt of Congress if he does not produce a report related to the CIA leak probe.

Mr. Waxman said his track record so far is in stark contrast to when Republicans controlled the committee.

“When Clinton was president and they were in charge, there wasn’t an accusation too small for them to ignore. They went after the pursuit of any small charge, with subpoenas and calling hearings and making accusations that invariably turned out to be wrong. But when Bush became president, there wasn’t a scandal too big for them to ignore,” he said.

However, Mr. Waxman’s Republican counterpart on the committee, ranking member Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, said the Democrat’s modus operandi so far has been less noble than he avows.

“Part of the agenda is to attack Bush,” Mr. Davis said in a phone interview, though he added that “the thing about Henry is that his staff are professionals.”

“I don’t find it hard to work with them,” he said.

Mr. Davis, who chaired the committee from 2003 to 2007, said “Democrats tend to overinvestigate,” but also allowed that “Republicans tend to underinvestigate.”

Under Mr. Davis’ chairmanship, the committee did not hold hearings on such issues as the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq and the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

But Mr. Davis’ larger criticism of Mr. Waxman was that the Democratic chairman has done more to expose problems than he has to work toward solutions.

“We should be working to fix government. They spend a lot of time investigating government and criticizing government, but when it comes to getting workable solutions to fix government, they’re a little short,” Mr. Davis said, pointing to Mr. Waxman’s work on federal contracting.

The oversight committee under Mr. Waxman has reviewed more than 700 reports and found that from 2002 to 2008, the government has spent $1.1 trillion on federal contracts plagued by “significant waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement.”

“The government is wasting an extraordinary amount of the taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Waxman said.

He blamed it on “a philosophy” in the Bush administration “that government can do no right and private industry can do no wrong.”

Stan Soloway, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition reform in the Clinton administration, said the problems behind wasteful and fraudulent contracting are more nuanced than Mr. Waxman says.

“It’s in fact appropriate that Mr. Waxman and others in Congress have concerns about what’s going on with acquisition because it plays such a big role in government,” said Mr. Soloway, who is president of the Professional Services Council, a trade association for 330 contractor companies.

“What I’m concerned about, though, is that they’ve spent way too much time in less-than-productive what they call investigative hearings - but they tend sometimes just to be, I think, hyperbolic - and not enough time focusing on really meaningful solutions,” he said.

Mr. Waxman said he sees his role as more of a check on the executive branch and listed his three priorities as protecting taxpayers, making sure government works for people and providing accountability.

“I believe in government. I know some people don’t, but I believe in government. I believe government can make a big difference in people’s lives,” he said.

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