The Election and Investigatory Powers of Congress

The Election and Investigatory Powers of Congress
November 1st, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: The Election and Investigatory Powers of Congress

The Election and Investigatory Powers of Congress
By George Friedman

There is now only a week to go before midterm congressional
elections in the United States. The legislative outcome is already
fairly clear. President George W. Bush lost the ability to drive
legislation through Congress when he had to back away from his
Social Security proposals. That situation will continue: The
president will not be able to generate legislation without building
coalitions. On the other hand, Congress will not be able to
override his vetoes. That means that, regardless of whether the
Democrats take the House of Representatives (as appears likely) or
the Senate (which appears less likely but still possible), the
basic architecture of the American legislative process will remain
intact. Democrats will not gain much power to legislate;
Republicans will not lose much.

If the Democrats take control of the House from the Republicans,
the most important change will not be that Nancy Pelosi becomes
House Speaker, but that the leadership of House committees will
shift -- and even more significant, that there will be upheaval of
committee staffs. Republicans will shift to minority staff
positions -- and have to let go of a lot of staffers -- while the
Democrats will get to hire a lot of new ones. These staffers serve
two functions. The first is preparing legislation, the second is
managing investigations. Given the likelihood of political
gridlock, there will be precious little opportunity for legislation
to be signed into law during the next two years -- but there likely
will be ample opportunity and motivation for congressional

Should the Democrats use this power to their advantage, there will
be long-term implications for both the next presidential election
and foreign policy options in the interim.

One of the most important things that the Republicans achieved,
with their control of both the House and Senate, was to establish
control over the type and scope of investigations that were
permitted. Now, even if control of only the House should change
hands, the Democrats will be making those decisions. And, where the
GOP's goal was to shut down congressional investigations, the
Democrat Party's goal will be to open them up and use them to shape
the political landscape ahead of the 2008 presidential election.

It is important to define what we mean by "investigation." On the
surface, congressional investigations are opportunities for
staffers from the majority party to wield subpoena power in efforts
to embarrass their bosses' opponents. The investigations also
provide opportunities for members of Congress and senators to make
extensive speeches that witnesses have to sit and listen to when
they are called to testify -- a very weird process, if you have
ever seen it. Congressional investigations are not about coming to
the truth of a matter in order for the laws of the republic to be
improved for the common good. They are designed to extract
political benefit and put opponents in the wrong. (Republicans and
Democrats alike use the congressional investigative function to
that end, so neither has the right to be indignant.)

For years, however, Democrats have been in no position to
unilaterally call hearings and turn their staffs and subpoena
powers loose on a topic -- which means they have been precluded
from controlling the news cycle. The media focus intensely on major
congressional hearings. For television networks, they provide vivid
moments of confrontation; and the reams of testimony, leaked or
official, give the print media an enormous opportunity to look for
embarrassing moments that appear to reveal something newsworthy. In
the course of these hearings, there might even be opportunities for
witnesses to fall into acts of perjury -- or truth-telling -- that
can lead to indictments and trials.

To reverse their position, the Democrats need not capture both the
House and Senate next week. In fact, from the party's standpoint,
that might not even be desirable. The Senate and House historically
have gotten in each other's way in the hearing process. Moreover,
there are a lot of Democratic senators considering a run for the
presidency, but not many members of Congress with those ambitions.
Senators who get caught up in congressional hearings can wind up
being embarrassed themselves -- and with the competing goals of
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and some of the other candidates,
things could wind up a mess. But if the House alone goes to
Democrats, Pelosi would be positioned to orchestrate a series of
hearings from multiple committees and effectively control the news
cycles. Within three months of the new House being sworn in, the
political landscape could be dominated by hearings -- each week
bringing new images of witnesses being skewered or news of
embarrassing files being released. Against this backdrop, a new
generation of Democratic congressmen would be making their debuts
on the news networks, both while sitting on panels, and on the news
channels afterward.

Politically, this would have two implications. First, the ability
of the White House to control and direct public attention would
decline dramatically. Not only would the White House not be able to
shut down unwanted debate, but it would lack the ability even to
take part in setting the agenda. Each week's subject would be
chosen by the House Democratic leadership. Second, there will be a
presidential election in two years that the Democrats want to win.
Therefore, they would use congressional hearings to shape public
opinion along the lines their party wants. The goal would be not
only to embarrass the administration, but also to showcase
Democratic strengths.

The Senate can decide to hold its own hearings, of course, and
likely would if left in Republican hands. The problem is that, at
the end of the day, the most interesting investigations would
involve the Bush administration and corporations that can be linked
to it. A GOP-controlled Senate could call useful hearings, but they
would be overwhelmed by the Democratic fireworks. They just would
not matter as much.

So let's consider, from a foreign policy standpoint, what would be
likely matters for investigation:

What did the Bush administration really know about weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq? Did Bush dismiss advice from the CIA on
Did the administration ignore warnings about al Qaeda attacks
prior to 9/11?

These, of course, would be the mothers of all investigations.
Everything would be dragged out and pored over. The fact that there
have been bipartisan examinations by the 9/11 commission would not
matter: The new hearings would be framed as an inquiry into whether
the 9/11 commission's recommendations were implemented -- and that
would open the door to re-examine all the other issues.

Following close on these would be investigations into:

Whether the Department of Homeland Security is effective.
Whether the new structure of the intelligence community works.
Whether Halliburton received contracts unfairly -- a line of
inquiry that could touch Vice President Dick Cheney.
Whether private contractors like Blackwater are doing appropriate
jobs in Iraq.
Whether the Geneva Conventions should apply in cases of terrorist
Whether China is violating international trade agreement.

And so on. Every scab would be opened -- as is the right of
Congress, the tendency of the nation in unpopular wars, and likely
an inevitable consequence of these midterm elections.

We can expect the charges raised at these hearings to be serious,
and to come from two groups. The first will be Democratic critics
of the administration. These will be unimportant: Such critics,
along with people like former White House security adviser Richard
Clarke, already have said everything they have to say. But the
second group will include another class -- former members of the
administration, the military and the CIA who have, since the
invasion of Iraq, broken with the administration. They have
occasionally raised their voices -- as, for instance, in Bob
Woodward's recent book -- but the new congressional hearings would
provide a platform for systematic criticism of the administration.
And many of these critics seem bruised and bitter enough to avail
themselves of it.

McCain clearly intends to run for president and, though he publicly
shows support for Bush, there is every evidence that McCain has
never forgiven him for the treatment he received in the primaries
of 2000. McCain is not going to attack the president, nor does he
really oppose the war in Iraq, but he has shown signs that he feels
that the war has not been well prosecuted. This view, shared
publicly by recently retired military commanders who served in
Iraq, holds out Rumsfeld as the villain. It is not something that
McCain is going to lead the charge on, but in taking down Rumsfeld,
McCain would be positioned to say that he supported the war and the
president -- but not his secretary of defense, who was responsible
for overseeing the prosecution of the war.

Following the elections, five or six months will elapse before the
House Democrats get organized and have staff in place. After that,
the avalanche will fall in on Bush, and 2008 presidential politics
will converge with congressional investigations to overwhelm his
ability to manage foreign policy. That means the president has less
than half a year to get his house in order if he hopes to control
the situation, or at least to manage his response.

Meanwhile, the international window of opportunity for U.S.
enemies will open wider and wider.