` As the Lord High Executioner said in The Mikado, `I have a littlelist.'" So says John Dingell, the 26-term Michigan House Democratwho spent 14 years as a mighty committee baron before the 1995Republican Revolution booted him into the powerless minority. Atlast poised to reclaim his House Energy and Commerce Committeegavel, the 80-year-old Dingell now sounds like a man who can't waitfor 2007. Though he knows a House Democratic majority won't passmuch legislation, especially given George W. Bush's veto pen, hischairmanship means he can subject the Bush administration tohigh-profile committee hearings- -lots and lots of them.
"Privacy," he begins. "Social Security-number protection.Outsourcing protection. Unfair trade practices. Currencymanipulation. Air quality. We'll look at the implementation of theEnergy Policy Act of 2005. We'll take a look at climate change.We'll take a look at [the Department of Energy's] nuclear wasteprogram, where literally billions of dollars are being dissipated.We'll look at port security and nuclear smuggling, where there'sliterally nothing being done. We'll look at the Superfund program.We'll take a look at EPA enforcement." He pauses for a breath--buthe's just getting started: "On health, we'll take a look atMedicaid and waivers. The Food and Drug Administration. Genericdrug approval. Medical safety. We'll also take a look at foodsupplements, where people are being killed. We will look at MedicarePart D [prescription drugs]." Is that all? "Telecom. We'll look atFCC actions. ... Media ownership. Adequate spectrum for police,fire, public safety, and addressing the problems of terrorism. ...We will look also at the overall question of Katrina recoveryefforts."
As Democrats have gained in the polls, Republicans are predictingthat a Democratic majority will mean a frenzy of political witchhunts directed at them by newly installed chairmen like Dingell."You can expect two years of all- out investigations and attacksand anything they can bring to bear," Newt Gingrich warned on FoxNews last March. Clearly aiming to calm the hysteria, George H.W.Bush recently warned it would be a "ghastly thing" for the UnitedStates if "wild Democrats" were put in charge of congressionalcommittees. A Washington Times article fretted that "keyadministration officials will be so busy preparing for testimonythat they will not be able to do their jobs."
But the curious thing about Dingell's little list is that it targetspolicies--not people. While some Democrats may dream of hauling KarlRove to the Hill to discuss Plamegate or forcing Dan Bartlett totestify about Dick Cheney's hunting accident, Dingell is one of anumber of future Democratic chairs who plan to focus on substance,not sideshows. And, as strange as it sounds, this may not come as arelief to Republicans. The GOP would love nothing more than forDemocrats to go off on half-cocked, mean-spirited inquisitions thatgenerate sympathy for the hapless Bushies. Alas, the GOP's conductduring the Clinton years has provided Democrats with a near-perfectwhat-not-to-do manual.
In the fall of 1994, Gingrich could barely contain his excitementabout the prospects of a GOP Congress. In remarks to a group oflobbyists (later leaked), Gingrich crowed that "Washington justcan't imagine a world in which Republicans would have subpoenapower." True to Gingrich's word, the following year the GOP ineffect laid a siege-by-subpoena upon the White House. ButGingrich's world wasn't so wonderful: Republicans throughoutCongress pushed anti-Clinton charges flimsy enough to embarrass aSoviet-bloc secret police agent. In the Senate, Al D'Amatoconducted dozens of Whitewater hearings that flopped badly andcontributed to his 1998 defeat by Chuck Schumer.
Most memorable, however, was the famously unhinged chairman of theHouse Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Indiana RepublicanDan Burton. During his tenure, Burton issued more than 1,000subpoenas to 141 different Clintonites. His inquiries included tendays of hearings on whether the White House used its Christmas cardlist for political purposes. In one case, Burton's investigatorsmanaged to subpoena the wrong man. His low point came in 1998, whenBurton released misleadingly edited transcripts of secretlyrecorded phone conversations conducted in prison by former Clintonassociate Webb Hubbell. Burton apologized, and his notorious leadinvestigator, David Bossie, resigned; but, by then, fellowRepublicans were furious over the damage Burton had done to his ownparty. "There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds," one Republicanfumed to The Washington Post.
Burton wasn't alone. In 1997, Republican Representative GeraldSolomon of New York notified the FBI that Democratic NationalCommittee fund-raiser John Huang may have sold U.S. secrets to theChinese, prompting an FBI investigation and wide press coverage.Two years later, FBI files released to Congress showed thatSolomon's charge had been based on a cocktail-party conversationwith a Senate staffer who claimed to have heard the scoop from anunnamed employee of the Commerce Department, where Huang hadworked. Solomon couldn't remember his source's name--only that hewas "a male in his thirties or early forties, approximately fivefeet ten inches tall with brownish hair." (That narrowed thingsdown to roughly half the federal government's employees.) As HenryWaxman, currently the ranking Democrat on the House ReformCommittee, put it at an American University forum last month,"That's the climate we were in then: Even cocktail-party gossipcould launch major congressional and criminal investigations of theDemocratic Clinton administration."
Waxman, who hounded the Reagan and first Bush White Houses aschairman of a subcommittee on health and the environment, now findshimself in the same place as did Dan Burton in 1994. Over the pastfew years, he has sought--and been denied--investigations intowhether the administration possibly condoned detainee abuse at AbuGhraib or GuantAnamo Bay, tightened executive-branch secrecy,permitted the politicization of science, and bungled pre-war WMDintelligence. But now, after six years of being sidelined, Waxmansuddenly looms as one of the Democrats' most important figures. Aschairman of the Government Reform Committee, traditionally a leadinvestigative committee, he'd be sure to run some of a HouseDemocratic majority's most dramatic and news- making hearings.
Waxman is surely just as giddy as Burton was to be taking the reinsof power, newly able to make any member of the opposing partyanswer his beck and call. (In a potentially bitter irony for theGOP, Waxman says he'll retain an enhanced subpoena power thatRepublicans granted to Burton over Democratic objections--eventhough Waxman insists the use of subpoenas is a last resort.) Butit's obvious that he has learned well from the countless pratfallsof the Gingrich Republicans. "In 1994, it was clear that NewtGingrich had the intention of payback. I think the Republicans havegiven us a very good example over the past twelve years of how notto behave, and we ought to learn from that," Waxman explains,sitting in his Capitol Hill office in a maroon sweater.
Waxman's careful study of the GOP's overreach during the Clintonyears is not the only reason that Republicans should be afraid.Though he represents a California district that includes WestHollywood's Chateau Marmont and Malibu Beach, Waxman--with hisbald, oval head, large ears, and glasses--is anything but ashoot-from-the-hip proxy for buffoonish Hollywood celebrities. "He'snot a hack. He's really well-respected in the caucus," says a HouseDemocratic leadership aide. "Henry is a great prosecutor," says NewJersey Democrat Rob Andrews. (Democrats particularly respectWaxman's staff, led by his hard-driven chief of staff, PhilSchiliro, who retains a near-encyclopedic memory of Burton'sfoibles.)
When it comes to specific plans, Waxman is more coy than the verboseDingell. "One of my priorities will be to pursue waste, fraud, andabuse of taxpayers' money," he explains, citing Hurricane Katrina,homeland security, and Iraq as potential examples. What remainsunclear is how intensely Democrats like Waxman intend to pursue thepolitics of the Iraq war. Hard-core Democrats would surely lovenothing more than to see Donald Rumsfeld, Doug Feith, and PaulWolfowitz sweating under the klieg lights as they explain the basisof their case for war. Waxman seems to shy away from the idea ofreliving the fall of 2002 and spring of 2003. "That would have beenan appropriate hearing to have," he says, conspicuously employingthe past tense. "I think the manipulation of intelligence with thewar was a very serious matter that should have been pursued in openhearings." Does that mean the moment for such hearings has passed?"I don't know what the issues will be," Waxman explains with asmile.
Chances are that the case for war won't be one of them. Oneleadership aide acknowledges that some House liberals are eager forhearings on whether Bush officials lied about Iraq, but they areunlikely to get their wish. "I don't think there'll be a lot ofthat," says the aide. Adds another leadership aide: "We're lookingto really change the tone and look like we're making things work--and that, when we're doing oversight, it's with good reason. It'snot about political vendettas; it's about making sure things areworking and taxpayer dollars are being spent right."
There's already evidence of such self-discipline. Several monthsago, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who is set to take over theHouse Judiciary Committee, was publicly musing about thepossibility of Bush's impeachment. But Nancy Pelosi clamped down onsuch talk, and, for the most part, Conyers seems to have abandonedany such ambitions. "I'm sure that we will occasionally presentsome of our more screechy, paranoid members, and it won't be to ouradvantage," says Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "But I think,over the past several years, you've seen a great deal of disciplineand maturity from the House [Democratic] political leadership.Certainly, Nancy Pelosi doesn't have any interest in confirmingHouse Republican accusations about her" as a left- wing Gingrich.And, for every Conyers in the House, there's a shrewd Barney Frank(Financial Services Committee), David Obey (Appropriations), or IkeSkelton (Armed Services).
All this prudence may disappoint the party's frothing liberal base,which might like to see, say, Steven Hadley in stocks--preferablywith his pants down. But, in fact, it's surely more alarming to aBush administration whose best hope for survival, if Democrats winthe House, will be that Dingell, Waxman, and company go on aBurton-esque rampage. Asked whether the Bush White House shoulddread the specter of his chairmanship, Waxman smiles and gives alittle shrug. "I'm a nice guy," he says. That's exactly what GeorgeW. Bush is afraid of.