For Dems Chomping at Bit, Oversight is a Key Priority

If Democrats take over Congress in January, the tenor of the 110th Congress will not only be affected by a new legislative agenda, but by a shift in committee control that will let Democrats push their priorities, hold oversight hearings and use subpoena power for investigations.

Based on current top assignments for Democrats in their respective committees, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan would take the reins of the House Judiciary panel. Rep. Jane Harman of California will take over the Intelligence Committee and Rep. Henry Waxman, also of California, will be in charge of the Government Reform Committee.

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Speaking to Bloomberg News in September, Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York hinted that as head of the House Ways and Means Committee, he could think of no tax cut from 2001 and 2003 that he wants to extend past their 2010 expirations. Last week, Rangel denied that means he wants to roll back the cuts.

"I don't want to go retroactive in terms of any of the tax cuts. I think retroactive tax increases are bad tax policy," Rangel told The Washington Post. "That's what tax simplification is all about — determining what we're going to keep and what we're not going to keep. I have to say everything is on the table."

Last December, Conyers introduced a resolution with 37 co-sponsors that would create a select committee to investigate the Bush administration's manipulation of pre-war intelligence and make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment, among other issues. Conyers has not indicated he would press for impeachment if he becomes Judiciary Committee chairman.

The Democrats’ lack of power over the last 12 years has frustrated the party, which argues the Republican-controlled Congress, backed by a GOP-held White House, has been allowed to operate largely unchecked.

“We haven’t had any oversight hearings in six years, except for cheerleading sessions,” said Rep. Pete Stark, R-Calif.

Analysts say Democrats are itching for some action.

“What you will get is a lot of oversight that will be very aggressive and adversarial in many cases,” said Mike Franc, congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

Mark Wrighton, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said a “natural exuberance” exudes out of the party newly in power when it has a chance to flex its muscle.

For Democrats, it may feel like a long time coming, said Wrighton. The challenge is for a Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expected to become the next House speaker, to ensure such zeal doesn’t get in the way of the Democratic agenda.

“I think that is the argument Pelosi will have to make — that any time taken up by investigations and hearings is time not pushing forward any agenda that they promised to push forward in the midterm elections.”

Pundits expect that new Democratic chairs of the Senate committees will be eager to pursue investigations, too. Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and John Kerry, D-Mass., stand to head the foreign relations and small business and entrepreneurship committees respectively, and could try to parlay their power into becoming presidential prospects in 2008.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the Senate’s most liberal members, and likely new chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he has no doubt that oversight hearings will be in order.

“The institution has not functioned in its historical role of oversight,” he said. “That’s going to be very important. That’s just a given.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.