On May 9, 1975, a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church subpoenaed acting CIA director William Colby during an investigation of intelligence agencies. Colby (after practice sessions with President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld) was grilled about US covert operations, illegal assassinations and domestic spying abuses. The stunning revelations of the Church Committee hearings were followed by several years of rigorous Congressional oversight and reform legislation.
How can progressives best grab the momentum from the November elections to promote bold initiatives to end illegal war, fight poverty and inequality, and rein in the corporations that are destroying our democracy? Congressional oversight hearings could be one critical tool. And that’s not as boring as it sounds.
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are in line to chair ten of the twenty standing House committees and as many as thirty-five subcommittees. If they are media savvy and work creatively with activists and affected communities, they could turn humdrum hearings into blockbuster investigations that wrench the nation’s attention away from Britney and Paris (not the city) and onto the pressing matters of our time. And while the Democrats’ narrow majority will make it difficult to pass very much progressive legislation in the 110th Congress, well-designed hearings could lay the foundation for significant reforms in the medium and long term.
While impeachment may be “off the table,” Congress has a duty to investigate executive-branch misconduct to insure that such abuses of power never occur again. The wider public will be repulsed if Democrats appear to copycat GOP partisanship with vindictive investigations rather than solutions to the nation’s urgent problems. Thus, rather than going for Bush’s jugular, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees will probably first take up the matter of “signing statements”–the President’s practice of indicating the provisions of new laws he doesn’t intend to enforce–which effectively undermine Congressional legislative intent and powers. This will wisely begin the process of laying out, case by case, the unconstitutional usurpation of power without deflecting media coverage from other urgent matters.
I have received hundreds of suggestions for hearings (add yours at www.ips-dc.org/hearings) and have filtered the ideas through the following strategic prisms: Do they advance a bold progressive vision and connect to organized movements? Do they tell dramatic human-interest stories and lay the groundwork for progressive policy victories? Do they look forward and showcase new ideas but also put irresponsible corporations and the Bush agenda on the defensive? What follows are ten proposed hearings, culled from the suggestions of others and my own investigations, that would underscore the important progressive narrative that “we are all in this together” and expose the greed and selfish corporate interests undermining our common good.
1. The Katrina Divide.
When the levees broke, more was revealed than just FEMA incompetence and presidential indifference. We got a horrifying picture of an America deeply fractured along lines of race and class. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dramatized the results of two decades of “shift, shrink and shaft” antigovernment policies that, through privatization and corporate cronyism, have fueled the greatest polarization of income, wealth and opportunity since the Gilded Age.