In early December, I spoke at an orientation program for newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives run by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The new members of Congress were concerned about their impending committee assignments when the new Congress convened in January. Naturally, just about everyone wanted to be on Ways and Means, Appropriations or Energy and Commerce.
I told them such key committees were unlikely spots for freshmen and that they should set their sights a little lower. In fact, I said, if they really wanted to be in the middle of the action, they should sign up for Henry Waxman’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Six freshmen Democrats took my advice – John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Bruce Braley of Iowa, Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, John Sarbanes of Maryland and Peter Welch of Vermont. They are the lucky ones.
Waxman’s first hearing on Jan. 30 dealt with “Allegations of Political Interference with the Work of Government Climate Change Scientists.” It made big news and this is just the beginning.
Within just the next week, Waxman’s committee will hold hearings to address concerns relating to issues as diverse and revealing as the reliance upon private military contractors within reconstruction efforts in Iraq, to allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse in pharmaceutical pricing.
The full committee schedule is as follows:
--Tuesday, Feb. 6: The Lasting Impact of CPA Decision-Making on Iraq Reconstruction
--Wednesday, Feb. 7: Iraqi Reconstruction: Reliance on Private Military Contractors and Status Report
Thursday, Feb. 8: Management of Massive Homeland Security Contracts: Deepwater and SBInet
Friday, Feb. 9: Allegations of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in Pharmaceutical Pricing: Financial Impacts on Federal Health Programs and the Federal Taxpayer
Waxman set the tone in his opening statement during the first hearing on Jan. 30.
He noted, “The Oversight Committee is charged with an essential responsibility: bringing accountability to our government. I take this very seriously. As chairman, I intend to be fair to every witness and to invoke the committee’s broad powers only when absolutely necessary. But I also intend to be thorough, to insist on Congress’s right to receive relevant information, and to do everything possible to meet the important obligation we have to the American people.”
That may have been the understatement of the year. By “broad powers” Waxman meant the right to issue subpoenas.
I have known Henry Waxman for almost 30 years and no member of Congress is more respected for his thoroughness and focus. Anyone in the Bush administration who tries to hide corruption, incompetence or attempts to shade facts to fit ideology should fear an invitation to appear before Waxman’s committee.
Congressional oversight of the executive branch was slight indeed during the first six years of the Bush administration. The Republican controlled Congress did not want to ask the Republican run executive branch tough questions about whether or not the taxpayers were getting their money’s worth from government programs. One of the reasons that Democrats captured both houses of Congress last Fall was a feeling that there is some merit in divided government…that one party can serve as a check on the other.
Henry Waxman will do just that. He has spent a career dedicated to improving the environment and providing broader health care for the poorest in society. It was Henry Waxman who put the tobacco company CEO’s under oath about the addictive nature of their products and it was Henry Waxman who led the effort to determine the role of big oil companies in influencing Bush administration energy policy.
If I were a young reporter in Washington, I would ask my editors to let me attend every one of Waxman’s hearings this spring. Few things that will happen in this town in the months ahead will be more interesting.
And if I were a new member of Congress lucky enough to be on Waxman’s committee, I wouldn’t miss a day of hearings.
As his teammate used to say about basketball great Michael Jordan, “I’d buy a ticket to see him play.”
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.