WASHINGTON – Across Capitol Hill, Democratic-led committees Wednesday weighed punishments for past and present Bush administration officials for a range of alleged misdeeds, from discriminating against liberals at the Justice Department to blowing off subpoenas and lying to Congress.
The proceedings were the latest congressional review of the White House, a constitutionally mandated power that majority Democrats are eager to use. But three months from Election Day, a lame-duck Congress conducting oversight of a lame-duck White House produces mostly talk. There's little time and less willingness to spend the remaining five weeks of the congressional session doing more than holding televised hearings to try to convince voters that President Bush has abused the powers of his office.
The allegations certainly are serious.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was hearing from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, who reported this week that former department officials broke the law by letting Bush administration politics dictate the hiring of prosecutors, immigration judges and career government lawyers. The probe springs from Justice's firings of nine federal prosecutors that sparked congressional investigations last year and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
House and Senate Democrats said the findings affirmed their contention that career Justice employees were hired and fired based on whether they were deemed sufficiently conservative, a violation of law. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said he was considering bringing criminal charges against some of the former officials named in Fine's report who may have lied to his committee. Lying to Congress is a crime, but there's little agreement among Democrats on whether a perjury referral against some of the officials is warranted.
But one Republican acknowledged there's reason to look more closely. And everyone wants more answers by the Department of Justice. The question is what will be done now in the twilight of the 110th Congress and the Bush presidency.
"I'm glad to see Attorney General (Michael) Mukasey asking to change these practices," said Sen. Arlen Specter, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "I'd like to see frankly a very forceful statement out of the Department of Justice as to what they intend to do."
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called the report's findings that "cronyism was valued over competence" and "affirmative action of the worst kind."
"The question is what Attorney General Mukasey and the president do about it to provide accountability?" the Vermont Democrat said.
In his testimony, Fine said his office and Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility are investigating the prosecutor firings and whether Bradley Schlozman, former head of the department's Civil Rights Division, used political or ideological criteria to make hiring decisions.
Under questioning by Specter, Fine said he uncovered no evidence that any Justice officials involved made false statements to Congress or violated criminal law. Politicization of the hiring process for career positions is a violation of civil law and department policy, he said.
Some Democrats skipped right to thinking what can be done starting in January, after a new president and Congress are installed, probably with more Democrats in their ranks.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who led the investigation into the prosecutor firings, is pressing Fine to say whether making such a disregard of civil service rules a crime would deter the kind of conduct his investigation uncovered.
Similar legislation will be considered in the House.
"I will be asking Chairman Conyers to consider legislation to ensure that the politicization of hiring of career employees at the Justice Department never happens again," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Meanwhile, on the House side, the Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold former White House strategist Karl Rove in contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena to testify.
Voting along party lines, the panel said that Rove broke the law by failing to appear at a July 10 hearing on allegations of White House influence over the Justice Department, including whether Rove encouraged prosecutions against Democrats.
The committee decision is only a recommendation, and it was unclear whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would allow a final vote.
Rove has denied any involvement with Justice decisions, and the White House has said Congress has no authority to compel testimony from current and former advisers.