The U.S. Civil Rights Commission was the target of a congressional oversight inquiry Thursday into whether the panel's leadership systematically squashes dissent, mismanages its budget and is used as a tool to push the majority Democratic agenda.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said the recent negative press surrounding the panel’s refusal to seat President Bush’s nominee to the $9 million advisory panel, in addition to complaints from the minority Republican commissioners, made the hearing long overdue.

"The commission is now more a public spectacle than it is a serious fact-finding agency that informs the public about the state of civil rights in America," Chabot said in his opening statement.

But Democratic supporters called the inquiry a petty vendetta against the panel's Democratic majority. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said they were there because of "right-wing members who don’t approve of civil rights in the Republican Party."

"I see a campaign of defamation against the commission," he said.

Commission chairwoman Mary Francis Berry, who declined an invitation to appear at the hearing, made headlines earlier this year when she refused to seat Bush appointee Peter Kirsanow, a black conservative attorney, to a seat that she insisted was still occupied by Democratic commissioner Victoria Wilson. A U.S. District Judge agreed with Berry in February and the matter is now in a federal appeals court.

On Thursday, staff director Les Jin defended Berry and said he thought complaints against the chairwoman and staff were "philosophical differences that get translated into other arenas such as management issues."

"The ultimate test of good management is that the commission has produced quality work in a timely manner covering a broad range of civil rights topics," Jin said. "(The commission) is effectively and efficiently accomplishing its mission."

Chabot asked Jin why the commission did not effectively respond to a 1997 Government Accounting Office report that said the agency is "in disarray," and why it spends over $180,000 a year on an outside public relations firm despite having its own internal public affairs department.

Jin said the outside firm has done much better work for the agency and that he believed privatizing public relations was actually more cost effective. He also said "inadequate funding" has stretched the support staff too thin.

Established in 1959 by the Eisenhower administration to protect the voting rights of blacks, the panel has no enforcement powers, but has the authority to call hearings and witnesses, hear discrimination complaints and publish reports.

Abigail Thernstrom, a scholar and Republican commission member, called the commission "a national embarrassment" that has evolved in the last several years into a Democratic dictatorship in which dissenting opinions are suppressed, staff and commissioners are intimidated, and the original intent of the panel had been turned on its head.

"It should be a place for procedural integrity, a forum of robust debate and a source of hard facts on current civil rights issues," she said. "It fails on all these counts."

She pointed to the 2001 Florida election report, which found that a pattern of discrimination against black voters in Florida skewed the results of the 2000 presidential election in that state.

"During the two Florida hearing, the most basic processes that would have guaranteed a fair and balanced hearing were not followed," she said.

The three Republicans on the eight-member panel hadn’t even seen the report before it was leaked to the press while Thernstrom's own report challenging the commission's findings was summarily dismissed by Berry as illegal, she said.

Thomas Schatz, the president of the non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste, suggested that perhaps the commission is due for an internal overhaul and should not receive the $7 million in additional funding it asked for this year.

"I am personally familiar with the fine work of the Civil Rights Commission, but I have become disillusioned that the commission today appears to be more political and less partisan," he said. "The agency may be independent but that doesn’t mean it’s unaccountable."