Thursday, April 26, 2007
Investigative infrastructure on the Hill.
Since Democrats assumed control of Congress in January, they have hired more than 200 investigative staffers for key watchdog committees. They include lawyers, former reporters and congressional staffers who left oversight committees that had all but atrophied during the six years that the GOP controlled Congress and the White House. They have already begun a series of inquiries on subjects ranging from allegations of administration meddling in federal scientists' work on global warming and the General Services Administration's alleged work for Republican campaigns to how disproved claims that Iraq had purchased nuclear material from Niger evolved into a case for war. . . .
New investigative subcommittees and staffers add oversight heft to the House Armed Services, Science and Foreign Affairs committees, and even to the Senate's Special Committee on Aging. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) is retooling his investigations staff, which Republicans gutted last year. Waxman's panel, previously known as the Committee on Government Reform, changed its name to Oversight and Government Reform. It backed up its renewed focus with 12 new investigators on the Democratic side and a dozen new inquiries since January. The committee wants to question Rice on several issues, including the fabricated claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger, and Card on the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity and on allegations of security violations at the White House. . . .
With the Democratic ramp-up comes a dire need for practical experience in investigations. The Democrats' former minority status had left them short of seasoned staffers. Before new investigators came on board, some Hill staffers resorted to using Google to search for documents, oblivious to Congress's power to demand them.
"One of the first things that was brought to my attention was that Congress doesn't have to use FOIA," said a House staffer, 32, referring to Freedom of Information Act requests, an approach used by the public that can take months to yield a response. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because, she said, her questions were "embarrassing."
The stagecraft of hearings -- finding convincing witnesses, targeting questions -- can baffle young staffers who may never have seen a full-fledged inquiry, except on television.
Quietly, a cadre of seasoned investigators have been training inexperienced staffers in the nuts and bolts of holding the executive branch's feet to the fire. Every month, about 30 staff members attend workshops held on the Hill by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. The topics have included a crash course on government contracts, investigating private companies, and earlier this month, "Working with Insiders and Whistleblowers."
The workshops began late last year, after the group's investigators kept running into young aides whose elementary questions reflected the loss of "old-guard Hill warhorses who had been doing oversight over the years," said Executive Director Danielle Brian.
The project's written tips for "The Do's and Don'ts of an Oversight Hearing" include: "Keep an eye out for the example that will put a human face on the problem. . . . Find the Department of Defense's $640 toilet seat" and "Don't book it in the afternoon -- and especially not on a Friday. By the afternoon, most press deadlines have passed. On Friday, the hearing risks getting bumped off the news broadcast in lieu of another celebrity adoption."
It's not fair to create the earth daily, it's too hard to cease it!
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