Perhaps most significant among the changes if the Democrats take over is that the new Democratic committee chairs would be able to launch myriad hearings and investigations--the oversight Republicans have virtually shut down. That includes contracting scandals and governing breakdowns in the executive branch, constitutional abuses by this President and the gaping holes in America's system of elections. The House could become center stage for the war debate, with Bush's lieutenants under oath required to answer their critics. Oversight is one of the core functions of Congress. Because Republicans have willfully shunned it, oversight hearings have the potential to expose scandal and produce shocking headlines. Pelosi was asked what was most important about regaining majority status. "Subpoena power," she said.
The power to investigate has the potential to create the biggest waves in public opinion. Representative John Conyers promises, if he becomes chair of the Judiciary Committee, to initiate a preliminary inquiry into George W. Bush's constitutional abuses. Representative Henry Waxman of the Government Reform Committee is "stunned" by the contracting waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq reconstruction, homeland security and the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Representative John Dingell of Energy and Commerce--the investigative master who taught a generation of younger Democrats how to do effective oversight--may look into the oil industry's pricing and profit-making. Representative Ed Markey, who would chair the subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, would take on the FCC's lax supervision of the industry's forming of monopolies, including corporate dominion and attempts to seize control of the Internet.
Even if such efforts succeed, they are only a prelude to big change. Reversing the party's decades of retreat and defeatism is like turning a stalled ocean liner around. It takes time and patient steps, and these might be overtaken by larger events. The Democrats have a shot, if only they find the nerve to act aggressively on their opportunity.
Pelosi has the sure footing to step up the pace as circumstances improve, but she needs outside help. She will be aided if others turn up the heat on her, raising their expectations for what Democrats can achieve. The newly revived Progressive Caucus is already playing that role. Its members are now nearly one-third of the Democratic caucus. Co-chairs Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee will push big questions others aren't yet ready to face--like cutting the military budget and reviving the commitment to eliminate poverty.
The outsiders in the party--rank-and-file voters, issue groups and ankle-biting bloggers--should get closer to the Congressional action and insinuate themselves as friendly critics of what the party is doing or afraid to do. Banging on Bush is always worthwhile, but banging on Democrats may now produce results.