“Send in the Subpoenas”

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In the Sunday Outlook section of the November 19 Washington Post, Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11, contends that oversight investigation hearings in the next Congress should include a focus on government corruption, starting with the relationship between administration officials and energy companies such as ExxonMobil, as well as holding the administration accountable for its “repeated practice of strong-arming experts who stray off message,” including global warming science and the deceptive cost estimates on the Medicare prescription drug program.  Suskind: “Suggested witnesses: Tom Scully, [HHS accountant Richard] Foster’s boss; James Hansen of NASA; Rick Piltz, formerly of the U.S. Global Change Research Program; and former Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman.” 

“Send in the Subpoenas”
By Ron Suskind
Washington Post
November 19, 2006; B01
Copyright 1996-2006 The Washington Post Company

Suskind frames his argument in terms of a division of labor among Democratic leaders:

The new Democratic Congress may well come down to a series of confrontations between the competing urges to investigate and to lead. Between delving into past wrongdoings and building consensus on how to proceed in Iraq. Between, in a sense, the Democratic Party’s show horses and its pit bulls….

First, the Democrats must broker a separation of powers. The show horses are their putative candidates for president, especially in the Senate, and the party’s leadership in both chambers. Keep them above the fray, focusing on proposals for the future and the new “action plans,” especially in foreign policy. But unleash the pit bulls: the committee chairs, their seconds and investigators who will dig relentlessly, identify targets and thus, inevitably, leave themselves vulnerable in their next reelection campaigns.

Suskind proposes a set of issues that call out for oversight and investigation in the new Congress, following six years in which appropriate and competent oversight of the Executive Branch from Capitol Hill on some issues of fundamental national importance has all but collapsed.  These include concerns about government corruption:

I’ve spent the past several years investigating various aspects of the Bush administration—including economic policy and the battle against terrorism—so I know there are so very many targets for the Democrats to choose from. However, there is not unlimited public patience for such efforts. The Democrats should therefore start with the freshest data: Exit polls from the midterm elections showed that concern about Iraq was matched by broader concerns about terrorism and, surprisingly, government corruption….

The vast U.S. energy industry may be the ripest target for a corruption investigation. When Vice President Cheney’s energy task force was meeting in early 2001—meetings whose secrecy Cheney has managed to protect against legal challenge—the goal of U.S. energy independence was barely an afterthought. Now, with the United States mired in the affairs of petro-dictatorships in the Middle East, even the president has emphasized the need to cure our addiction to oil.

Studied inaction on this front stems from the coziness between the administration and big oil—a relationship that affects the global warming debate, Iraq, gas prices and oil company profits. Investigations into that relationship are a sure win for the Democrats. Just lining up oil company executives under the hot lights—much like the seven tobacco company chief executives were lined up in 1994, looking like gray-suited deer—creates the image, if not necessarily the fact, of activist government. (Suggested witnesses: Lee Raymond, chief executive of Exxon Mobil until this year; Spencer Abraham, former energy secretary; Cheney; and David Addington, Cheney’s deputy on many energy matters.)

Suskind specifically raises the prospect of holding government officials accountable for how they have dealt with science communication on the global warming problem—something that touches on the heart of the Climate Science Watch mission: 

While some inquests set the table for responsible policy—much as hearings on pollution helped spur 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act—most are designed to strengthen accountability and deter future perfidy. The administration’s repeated practice of strong-arming experts who stray off message makes for a bevy of high-intensity witnesses. They include global warming experts in various departments as well as Richard Foster, the Health and Human Services accountant who was threatened with dismissal for trying to alert Congress about the deceptive cost estimates on the Medicare prescription drug program. Hearings would show who gave the order to mislead the public on these issues of pressing concern—a proper investigation for any Congress. (Suggested witnesses: Tom Scully, Foster’s boss; James Hansen of NASA; Rick Piltz, formerly of the U.S. Global Change Research Program; and former Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman.)

All this comes before the Democrats even get to Iraq and the manipulation of prewar intelligence, the botched postwar planning and the myriad mistakes made after the invasion.

After a discussion of national security issues, including the Iraq war and terrorism, Suskind concludes:

And while all this proceeds, what about those show horses? Well, they’ll steer clear of the hearings and, as one senator recently quipped, “stay away from past-tense words like ‘woulda, coulda, or shoulda’ ” as they develop their action plans. But once the 2008 campaign season heats up, they’ll choose among the coming year’s subpoena fest for the sharpest disclosures, and wield them in electoral battle.

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