Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Next Congress

Second of five parts

Both political parties say America’s safety requires the next Congress to improve mass-transit security and intelligence efforts, but Democrats think it must immediately address fraud and waste at the Department of Homeland Security.

Democrats vow to flex their subpoena and investigative muscles if elected to lead Congress next month and will take on President Bush’s use of wiretaps.

“We have not had significant issues addressed from an oversight standpoint — we’ve not issued one subpoena,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who as ranking member of the House Homeland Security Department is in line to lead the panel.

“Leadership, in agreement with the chairman, just decided that it [investigations] was not a priority,” Mr. Thompson said. “That will not be a problem with the new Congress.”

Democrats have an outside chance of taking complete control of Congress, but a better chance of winning one chamber, and in this series, The Washington Times will look at how such a transfer of power will affect U.S. policy and politics.

Both of the Democratic Capitol Hill leaders, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have said Mr. Bush is threatening civil liberties in the name of war and pledged to force the administration to obtain court orders before issuing wiretaps of terror suspects.

Democrats say that Mr. Bush’s wiretaps without court orders violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — created in 1978 to ensure court oversight — and that they will legislate allowances to obtain the subpoenas in a speedy manner. “We will pass tough and smart legislation to deal with this important legislation,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Mr. Reid.

Probing deeper

Mr. Bush had fought to conduct the war on terror on his own terms but recently sought congressional authority for the most contentious programs, including the National Security Agency’s (NSA) wiretapping without court orders.

The House passed a bill allowing the NSA to listen to phone calls between the United States and overseas, but the Senate did not pass legislation before adjourning for the elections.

Mr. Bush uses the issue on the campaign trail, holding up House Democrats’ votes against the program as a reason they should not be trusted with control of Congress.

“The American people must fully understand that the vast majority of Democrats opposed the right of this administration to have a tool necessary to protect you,” he said while campaigning last week. “We just have a different view. They must not think we’re at war.”

Democrats say Republicans have been negligent in overseeing various departments and programs related to the nation’s security. They say investigations would lead to subpoenas and oversight hearings of waste, fraud and abuse within emergency, immigration and transportation safety agencies.

Mr. Manley said there is a need for increased oversight “because there has been none for the last six years, especially in homeland security.”

“Mr. Reid is a strong supporter of the need for proper and adequate oversight and feels this Congress has utterly failed on oversight of the administration’s programs, and that’s one thing he intends to push for,” Mr. Manley said.

Brian Darling, a former Senate staffer and director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, says the Bush administration should prepare for an onslaught of subpoenas from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“It will be two years of investigations, just short of impeachment hearings,” Mr. Darling said. “You will see two years of subpoenas to investigate Bush.”

Mrs. Pelosi has promised multiple investigations but has said “impeachment is off the table.”

“It is a waste of time,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Making them lame ducks is good enough for me.”

Besides wasting money, Democrats say Republicans have consistently failed to properly fund port and mass-transit security, improperly distributed first-responder money without regard to a jurisdiction’s threat level and failed to implement recommendations from the September 11 commission.

Actions, not words

Republican staffers say a Democrat-led Congress would devolve into a constant fight over increasing spending levels for security — and possibly over the structure of the Republican-created DHS.

One staffer for the House Homeland Security Committee called the agenda “Pelosi talking points” and says Congress has implemented 39 of 41 of the September 11 commission’s recommendations.

“Democrats have stood in the way of several of the most important reforms, and just last month, 162 House Democrats voted against the terrorist tribunals bill, another key recommendation of the commission,” the staffer said, including in the count an independent legislator who caucuses with the Democrats.

“They’re just trying to talk tough on homeland security. Facts tell a different story.”

Republicans point out that they not only created a department to protect the homeland, but also pushed through legislation to ramp up border security, port security and the tracking of terrorist finances.

Republicans note that every Democrat voted against making the House Homeland Security Committee a permanent panel, and that, if in control, Republicans would continue to prepare the U.S. for another attack and work to identify vulnerabilities and threats against critical infrastructure.

“Since September 11, 2001, Republicans in Congress have worked hard to strengthen our national security and have several accomplishments to show for it,” said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and House Homeland Security Committee chairman.

“These accomplishments include: stronger port security, improved chemical plant security, reforms to FEMA, over $30 billion in federal funding and enhanced interoperable communication systems for first responders, and sound border security reforms.”

Mr. Bush rejected the two remaining September 11 commission recommendations to declassify the top-line intelligence budget and give to the Defense Department lead responsibility for directing and executing paramilitary operations, whether clandestine or covert.

Democrats say they are also frustrated by a lack of leadership from Mr. King, who Mr. Thompson said failed to protect the panel’s authority in committee turf wars.

Authority over the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Coast Guard, once held by the homeland-security committee, is now in the purview of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chaired by Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican.

“We have ceded power by our inaction,” Mr. Thompson said.

Common ground

In comparison, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is one of the most amicable, bipartisan panels on Capitol Hill. It is led by Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman, and ranking member Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Reached by phone for an interview on Oct. 20, Miss Collins was in Connecticut campaigning for Mr. Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary after siding with Mr. Bush on the war in Iraq and is running as an independent.

“I have a great relationship with Joe Lieberman, and although I very much want to remain chairman, I think the committee would continue to produce bipartisan consensus legislation under his leadership,” Miss Collins said.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, is threatening to challenge Mr. Lieberman’s ascension to committee chairman, and other Democrats have suggested that Mr. Lieberman’s support for the war would impede his ability to investigate the administration.

“Most of the committee Democrats are people whom I work very well with, but there are a couple who have been extremely partisan in their approach,” Miss Collins said. “If one of them were able to somehow bump Lieberman, then it would change the nature of the committee, and my prediction is it would be far less productive.”

“It would be a contentious committee,” Miss Collins said.

Mr. Darling says the current Senate committee is “consensus-oriented.”

“They don’t have much conflict on that committee, and they have passed some significant port-security legislation because there is no partisan [rancor],” he said.

The Senate committee has conducted active oversight and investigations and issued subpoenas, including on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Hundreds of interviews with witnesses and more than 800,000 pages of evidence were reviewed in 23 hearings, and lead to the FEMA reorganization legislation.

Miss Collins and Mr. Lieberman also authored the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act and Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act.

Leslie Phillips, Mr. Lieberman’s committee spokeswoman, said the senator has not indicated what his agenda might be should Democrats take over the Senate.

“But as the ranking member, he has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively investigate government accountability and the failure of government to adequately regulate various industries,” said Miss Phillips, citing the Enron investigation, FEMA, and September 11 investigations.

“It is fair to say his agenda would include more resources for homeland security and vigorous oversight of the department and FEMA,” Miss Phillips said.

Part I

Democratic majority ready to go to war over Iraq

Part III

Specter of tax man haunts Democrats

Part IV

Bush may find an ally on immigration

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