WASHINGTON – Last year at this time, the Democratic Policy Committee, which attempts to shine a light on government, waste fraud and abuse, was holding hearings in whatever room on Capitol Hill it could grab.
But in the upcoming 110th Congress, the once routinely-ignored panel, as well as other House and Senate oversight committees, will be chaired by Democrats with subpoena powers and the authority to commandeer agendas.
"Oversight is traditionally the responsibility of Congress and its been long ignored with the majority party here and obviously, that's going to change," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. The partisan group that has focused primarily on defense contracting in Iraq "set a tone that I think reflects the seriousness of Congress in looking into how the money is spent."
Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series on legislative and ethics priorities for Democrats when they take over the congressional majority in January 2007.
Government watchdogs who spoke with FOXNews.com say Dorgan's committee has done yeoman's work that will likely be used as a template for Democrat-led investigations into government mismanagement and so-called war profiteering by private contractors in Iraq.
"I think there are some real clear signals that there is going to be more government reform, more government oversight," said Eric Leaver, a director with the Foreign Policy in Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington, D.C. "How much is really up for question."
Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., incoming chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, suggested that while an agenda has not been outlined, the senator plans to chart a course based on longstanding concerns with agency oversight, implementing the reforms set out by the 9/11 commission and fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of the 2005 Katrina disaster.
"He has also shown a particular interest in many aspects of the federal contracting system from the process of awarding contracts to the effectiveness of the work done — in particular, Iraq reconstruction contracts," Phillips told FOXNews.com.
Lieberman and outgoing chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have recently pressed to extend the tenure of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction beyond the October 2007 expiration date passed in the recent defense authorization bill. Both have complained that the office, now led by Stuart Bowen, has been working overtime to investigate waste, fraud and abuse of American tax dollars in Iraq.
Constructive Oversight or Scalp Collection?
Some wonder, however, how far Democrats will go to exploit their new authority in Congress and whether they will be tempted to engage in endless "gotcha" hearings, calling a train of White House and Defense Department officials to testify in hearings and dwelling on past administration mistakes, like the botched intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war.
"It's up to Henry Waxman, but I think we will be having large numbers of hearings and investigations," said a spokesman for Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., a longstanding member of the House Government Reform Committee.
Rep. Waxman of California, the next chairman of the panel, is known as a crusading but thorough investigator of abuses and has been particularly vocal about the multimillion-dollar defense contracts with Halliburton Corp. and its subsidiaries.
While Waxman would not return calls for comment, sources say he will certainly continue to investigate charges of negligence, overcharging and waste on the part of Halliburton and other companies contracted to support the troops, engage in security or lead reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., a longstanding member of the reform committee, will be giving up his chairmanship of the National Security, Emerging Threats and International Subcommittee. He urged the committee to be "forward looking," saying plenty of current matters are appropriate material for review.
"It can be a very partisan committee if you want it to be," Shays said, noting that outgoing chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., was not. "Henry, I think, will be more aggressive in some ways, but I think there will always be civility in committee."
On the Senate side, Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the incoming chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, says he is in a much better position now to press for the anticipated "Phase II" reports regarding how pre-war intelligence might have been spun and manipulated in order to get Congress and the public behind in the Iraq invasion in 2003.
"Our goal has always been to tell the full story about the role of intelligence and the mistakes that were made in the lead-up to the war," he said in November.
Despite all the potential areas of review, Democrats say they are not planning more aggressive inquiries like presidential impeachment hearings. Republican campaign rhetoric suggesting that Democrats in the majority would start the session off by seeking the president's head seems overstated at this point.
"This Congress will be a forward-looking Congress," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi. "There's obviously a huge need for oversight and Ms. Pelosi recognizes that as well."
Some observers say Democrats want to keep their majority, and possibly win the White House in 2008, and can't afford to appear too hostile. "I don't think it's going to be the big subpoena-city that everyone expects," said Davis spokesman Brian McNicoll.
"Congressman Waxman claims that Congress has not subpoenaed the White House at all in the last Congress, and I don't think that streak is going to stay intact too long, but I do not think that it's going to be a ruthless 'subpoena of the day' either," McNicoll added.
But the next Congress won't be boring either, predicted Mike Franc, congressional expert with the Heritage Foundation. "(Waxman) is a very sophisticated legislator, he has a knack for hiring very competent, aggressive oversight staff and my hunch is they will make their needs felt to every agency in the government in short order."
Former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who was one of the members who led the House impeachment hearings against former President Clinton, told FOXNews.com that it was smart for Pelosi's office to avoid hard-charging investigations, particularly into the White House, right away. He acknowledged that Republicans failed to heed that advice in 1994, the year they took over Congress for the first time in four decades.
"There certainly will be those Democrats, who like when the Republicans came into control in 1994, will want to express their new-found powers, the subpoena powers, to beat up on the president. But I sense there will be an overall more measured approach," Barr said. "Certainly there will be an effort to look at what has been done over the last two years, like the millions of dollars lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, I expect there will be — as there should be — hearings into that."
In a statement posted on the House Government Reform Committee's Web site shortly before the November election that handed the majority to Democrats, Davis praised the panel for working "to make government more responsive, more efficient and more transparent" during the 109th Congress.
In seeming anticipation of the critiques to come, Davis conceded, "It's not the politically-charged inquisitorial 'gotcha!' oversight some might prefer. But oversight is about making government better, not collecting scalps."
Davis readily admits that the most publicized hearings the committee held in 2006 were about steroid use in Major League Baseball, but the committee also conducted a number of inquiries into reconstruction and contractor issues in Iraq.
But even conservatives and traditional GOP supporters say the majority party dropped the ball on its oversight responsibilities, and that any renewed interest in keeping tabs on the bureaucracy — whether it be the mammoth Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., or Pentagon and State Department operations in Iraq — will be an improvement.
"Congress as a whole, not just (reform and oversight committees), is really honor-bound to look at 100 percent of all existing programs to see how they are doing on an annual basis, said Franc. "This part of their function the last eight to 10 years under (President George W.) Bush has been abysmal."