Don’t just investigate – legislate

  • David Broder / Washington Post Columnist
  • Saturday, March 17, 2007 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON – Ten weeks into the new Congress, it is clear that revelation, not legislation, is going to be its real product.

While President Bush threatens to use his veto pen to stop some bills and Senate Republicans block other measures from even reaching his desk, no force in Washington can halt the Democrats’ investigative juggernaut from uncovering the secrets inside this administration.

The Justice Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and parts of the Pentagon already have undergone investigations by House and Senate committees. Similar excursions are almost certainly in store for the Labor Department, the Health and Human Services Department, and the Department of Homeland Security – indeed, any part of the federal establishment that affects people’s lives and touches on vital interests.

And in every case, inquiring minds will look for links to the White House and its burgeoning bureaucracy of young Republican activists, some of whom have ridden herd on the agencies and departments with breathtaking arrogance.

The previously anonymous aides in the White House counsel’s office and the political affairs section headed by Karl Rove, whose names appear in the e-mails that led to the now controversial firing of seven U.S. attorneys, are hardly the only self-important White House employees to order Cabinet officers around.

For the first six years of the Bush administration, these aides were allowed free rein to carry out whatever policy or political assignment they wished – or supposed that the president wanted done. A Congress under firm Republican control was somnolent when it came to oversight of the executive branch. No Republican committee chairman wanted to turn over rocks in a Republican administration.

You have to feel a twinge of sympathy now for the Bush appointees who suddenly find unsympathetic Democratic chairmen such as Henry Waxman, John Conyers, Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin investigating their cases. Even if those appointees are scrupulously careful about their actions now, who knows what subpoenas for the memos and e-mails in their files will reveal about the past?

They will pay the price for the temporary breakdown in the system of checks and balances that occurred between 2001 and this year – when the Republican Congress forgot its responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable.

It was a fundamental dereliction of duty by Congress, and it probably did more to encourage bad decisions and harmful actions by executive branch political appointees than the much-touted lobbying influence. In reality, many Republican members of Congress did not mind what was happening because they were able to get favors done in that permissive climate. Now, the Democratic investigators will publicize instances of influence by members of Congress and the political fallout will not stop with New Mexico’s Pete Domenici and Heather Wilson.

Democrats find it easier to investigate than to legislate. With their major initiatives, from a minimum wage boost to a shutdown of the Iraq War, stymied by Republican opposition, the Democrats are understandably making “accountability” their new goal – meaning more and more investigations.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer held a news conference to celebrate the fact that the House already had conducted more than 100 oversight hearings on executive agencies.

And, they promised, that was just the beginning. As Hoyer put it, “Today is a new day in Congress. The days of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil are over. … The United States Congress will no longer be a potted plant or signer of blank checks.”

Fulfilling that promise, later in the week the House passed a series of bills that stripped away some of the secrecy from executive branch documents and decisions.

The most important measure strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, reasserting the principle that the public should have access to official documents, provided national security is protected. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, had issued a ruling that allowed agencies and departments to sequester information unless they were compelled to make it public – placing the burden on the inquirer, not the bureaucracy.

Other bills passed by the House last week expand access to papers in presidential libraries and provide additional protection for “whistleblowers,” including government scientists and contractors who report improper activities.

The Democratic sponsors said that this accountability offensive is exactly what people voted for last November, meeting what Waxman termed “the public’s call for fundamental reform.”

Accountability is certainly important, but Democrats must know that people were really voting for action on Iraq, health care, immigration, energy and a few other problems. Investigations are useful, but only legislation on big issues changes lives.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to

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