Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy was asked in December whether President Bush should be “worried” that the liberal Democrat would soon take over as chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. “No, no,” Leahy replied. “No, he shouldn’t be worried. He should be terrified.” The anecdote, which Leahy has delighted in repeating to Democratic audiences in his home state, highlights the most significant reality of the new Congress.
Yes, Democrats will be in control of the Senate for the first time since 2003 and of the House for the first time since 1995. But the majorities in both chambers are relatively narrow, and the executive branch is still in the hands of conservative Republicans who, for all their polite references to bipartisanship, are more than ready to take advantage of divided government to prevent the course correction that Americans voted for on November 7. So why would Bush be terrified by Leahy’s chairmanship, or that of other Democrats who will be taking charge of key committees and subcommittees? Because the most important work of this Congress will be the restoration of a system of checks and balances–with the power to hold the executive branch to account–that even Republicans like Senator Chuck Hagel admit ceased to function during the first six years of the Bush presidency.
Committee and subcommittee chairs have the power not merely to advance legislation and review appointments but to schedule hearings, initiate investigations, compel executive branch members to release information and, where necessary, subpoena testimony from White House aides. Bush and to an even greater extent Vice President Cheney do not fear a Congress that seeks to raise the minimum wage or tinker with tax cuts for the rich. They can deal with those fights–indeed, they may even relish them for purposes of political positioning. But this most secretive of administrations fears investigation as a vampire does sunlight.
Bush and Cheney have reason to be concerned. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may say that proposals to impeach the President and Vice President for abusing their offices and the Constitution are “off the table,” and Senate majority leader Harry Reid may still be determined to block efforts by Senator Russ Feingold to censure Bush for approving warrantless wiretapping. But committee and subcommittee chairs have broad leeway, and many of the new chairs intend to tear away the veil of secrecy that until now has prevented examination of the manipulation of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq, profiteering by companies associated with Cheney and others, illegal spying, the targeting of critics for retribution and other abuses of power.
Impeachment and censure are best seen as organic processes that begin with investigations, which inspire public outrage. It is this outrage that ultimately emboldens members of Congress to place constitutional remedies on the table. There are no guarantees that this new Congress will get close enough to the truth of the Administration’s misdeeds to inspire the application of the most severe of sanctions. But the right people are in the right places to advance the process. Consider that Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act and the senator most concerned about checking the President’s power to wage war without a proper declaration from Congress and to spy without a warrant, will now chair the Constitution subcommittee of Leahy’s Judiciary Committee. Feingold, who says the censure option remains on his table, plans an ambitious set of hearings on issues related to the war and domestic eavesdropping.