Ten Blockbuster Hearings
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.
Congress should team up with grassroots groups to hold hearings in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to keep the oversight fire lit under FEMA, HUD and other federal agencies. But hearings must also revisit the larger questions of accountability and national direction: How did we allow this to happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? How much economic inequality should our society tolerate?
2. War Profiteering.
During World War II Franklin Roosevelt said, "I don't want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster." While FDR set the moral tone, it was Senator Harry Truman who led a bipartisan investigation that saved taxpayers more than $15 billion ($200 billion in 2005 dollars). The current Congress should invoke Give 'em Hell Harry's investigative legacy by kicking off war-profiteering hearings at the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri.
The Government Accountability Office recently identified thirty-six areas needing urgent Congressional oversight. At the top of the list was investigating the billions squandered by the Defense Department in the most privatized war in US history. The number of private contractors in Iraq is now more than 100,000, nearly approaching the size of our military forces stationed there. Incoming Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman should subpoena CEOs of military corporations to answer tough questions. He could query Halliburton CEO David Lesar about his company's waste of taxpayer money and equipment, overbilling and poor services. George David, CEO of United Technologies, should be asked why he is suing his Pentagon patrons to block the release of Black Hawk helicopter inspection reports. David Brooks, formerly of DHB In- dustries, can explain how many lives were endangered when the Pentagon was forced to recall 23,000 bulletproof vests of his company's subsidiary--and whether he used ill-gotten profits to throw a $10 million, celebrity-studded party for his daughter. Members of military families who held bake sales to buy body armor for their children fighting in Iraq should also be asked to give testimony, alongside that of the profiteers.