- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2011

With Congress split this year between Republicans and Democrats, the GOP may not be able to pass much of its repeal agenda, but it still expects to play a major role in shaping government through hearings and investigations into much of what the Obama administration has done.

Republican committee chairmen say they’re eager to get to work on dissecting government operations and, as one incoming chairman said, pushing lawmakers to ask basic questions.

“I will ask our committee members to review the agencies from the top down. Literally, walk around agencies, such as [the Energy Department] and [Health and Human Services Department], and ask simple questions like, ‘Why is the federal government doing this?’” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose broad jurisdiction makes it one of the most powerful spots for picking over government.

“We will be relentless in our efforts to expose and slash wasteful spending,” he said.

Mr. Upton said his committee “will put a microscope” on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, stimulus spending and the health care law — in other words, just about every controversial program the administration and the Democrat-led Congress pursued over the past two years.

House Republican leaders are intent on scrutinizing the government and have even structured their floor voting schedule around giving committees time to work.

The White House didn’t return a message seeking comment, but Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who will be chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told CNN on Sunday that he thinks the administration shares the GOP’s goal of creating a leaner, more efficient government.

“As soon as I got this job, I got a call from Vice President [Joseph R.] Biden [Jr.]. We had a 45-minute-or-so meeting, and it was a wonderful meeting because he cares about the same things I care about. He cares about the dollar going further. He has a huge government that needs help,” Mr. Issa said.

Aides said his committee is likely to take a look at the broad operations of government, including regulations, the $814 billion stimulus and the Wall Street bailout packages and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Other committees with specific jurisdiction will be more targeted. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Justice Department are likely to face close scrutiny.

Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he will look into charges that the department’s civil rights division failed to follow up on race-based complaints — most notably in dropping the voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.

“It is unacceptable for the Justice Department to determine whether to enforce a law based upon the race of a defendant or victim,” Mr. Smith told The Times. “Allegations that the Civil Rights Division has engaged in a practice of race-based nonenforcement of federal voting rights law are troubling. We need to make sure that our laws are being equally enforced.”

A Justice Department spokesman didn’t return a call Sunday afternoon, but Mr. Holder told the New York Times last week that “there is no ‘there’ there.”

“The notion that this made-up controversy leads to a belief that this Justice Department is not colorblind in enforcement of civil rights laws is simply not supported by the facts,” he said. “All I have on my side with regard to that is the facts and the law.”

Mr. Smith also said the Judiciary Committee will take a close look at immigration enforcement and whether it’s doing enough to protect jobs for American workers.

Aides said the Ways and Means Committee, with Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan as chairman, will take a look at the waivers the Obama administration has granted under its health care law and will examine the expansion of the Internal Revenue Service to force compliance.

The Education and the Workforce Committee, under the leadership of Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, will take a look at student loans, Mr. Obama’s Race to the Top education program and the health care law’s mandates on employers.

Part of what’s driving Republicans is the list of questions they’ve drawn up over the past two years when they were in the minority and when the White House felt less pressure to respond to their requests for information.

Now, in control, they can call administration officials as witnesses, set the hearing agenda and demand that documents be turned over, with the threat of a subpoena if the administration doesn’t comply.

“Because of that, which is the ultimate hammer, they will be more willing to release reports,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.

Mr. Bishop, who has been tapped to be chairman of the public lands subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee, said he wants to find out more about administration plans to restrict use of federal property. Last year, his office released a Bureau of Land Management document showing preliminary discussions in the administration for moving tens of millions of acres into more protected status, but Mr. Bishop said he has been unable to see what other agencies have discussed.

Meanwhile, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said he wants to see oversight hearings look at the constitutional backing for what agencies are doing.

“It’s my hope that one of the premises on which these hearings are held is, OK, the federal government is acting in this area, we’re conducting oversight of that, the first question is should the federal government be acting in that area at all?” he said.

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