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Let The Investigations Begin!

by David Corn

Put the oil companies on the hot seat
The Democrats, thanks to cranky Yankee Jim Jeffords, rule the Senate. Sure, they can slow President Bush's legislative agenda (tax cuts for the rich, arsenic for all, merging Social Security with SmithBarney, and a nuclear power plant in every back yard). But there are still a dozen or so Bush-friendly Senate Democrats willing to collaborate with BushCheney Inc., and that makes it tougher for the Democrats to derail the Bush Express.

The Democrats can try to pass a few legislative favorites -- such as a strong patient bill of rights. Then they can watch Bush and the House Republicans smother their initiatives. So control will come with frustrations for the Democrats.

But one way they can go to town is by using the power of subpoena.

As the majority party (sort of) of the Senate, the Democrats run all the committees and can launch whatever hearings and inquiries they desire, deploying subpoenas -- if need be -- to call witnesses and obtain evidence. The party out of the White House always has trouble competing with the President and his bully megaphone. How can the opposition grab attention and challenge the president's message? A kickass congressional investigation is a place to start.

Take energy policy. After the Bush-Cheney White House released its energy plan (drill a lot, save a little, drill a lot, save a little), the Democrats predictably savaged the package as a sop to Big Oil and Big Energy, banging on the obvious point the report reflected an administration headed by two former oil men. At a luncheon with twenty or so reporters, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt trotted out the usual rhetoric -- Bush is in bed with the oil business, etc. -- and a yadda-yadda-yadda look crossed the face of most of the reporters. It's not that the scribblers questioned the validity of the point, but after only four months of Bush II, the repetition of this sort of criticism has become old hat. It's possible that portions of the public also have tuned out to the Bush-is-a-pimp-of-Corporate-America charge.

The Democrats can rejuvenate this line of attack with high-profile committee hearings and probes. The Commerce Committee could hold hearings on oil company price-gouging. Picture the Democrats hauling in the CEOs of the major oil corporations. On behalf of the public, Democratic Senators would ask the execs to explain why exploding profits at a time of high pump prices is not a sign of price-gouging. After all, ExxonMobil first-quarter profits are up 51 percent, compared to last year; BP Amoco, up 52 percent; Chevron, up 53 percent; Conoco, up 64 percent; Texaco, up 45 percent.

In the House, a small number of progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, are pushing a measure that would tax the windfall profits of oil companies and devote the proceeds to tax credits for the purchase of energy efficient cars and support for mass transit projects. The point is to put the oil companies on the hot seat. Yet such a measure is damn unlikely to pass in the Republican-controlled House; consequently, its supporters will face difficulty pushing this issue. But their Senate counterparts (not colleagues, for the two bodies rarely work together) could rather easily shine a spotlight on the oil transnationals and their pricing policies. Moreover, they could call in Bush Administration officials and grill them on their policies and actions on this front -- and probe the relationship of the Bush-Cheney energy task force to the energy industry.

The possibilities are great
The Democrats could mount an entire series of price-gouging hearings. Many Californians believe that out-of-state energy producers -- including Enron , a Texas-based outfit that has long been a leading financial contributor to George W. Bush -- are colluding and ripping off the state in its time of need. Why not request the officials of these firms to testify? And bring in the CEOs of major drug companies and grill them on why certain prescription medicines are cheaper in Canada than in the United States. If Senate Democrats want to pass a strong patient bill of rights, they could tilt the debate in their favor by conducting dramatic hearings that expose HMO abuses.

The possibilities are great. Let's see the Democrats launch their own investigation into campaign finance. The Republicans had their turn. The Democrats could invite (or subpoena) dozens of lobbyists who give to the GOP and/or to the Democratic Party and request that they tell the public what such donations earn them. (At a recent GOP fundraiser that netted the party $24 million -- much of it from corporate interests -- Bush declared, "I realize that in politics old ways die hard....I came to this town to change the tone of the capital, and I'm not going to quit." Forget the "tone," the theme song of Washington remains the same: "ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching.")

Granted, it may be a wee bit unrealistic to expect the Democrats, a party that pocketed almost as much corporate soft-money contributions as the Republicans in the last election, to dive into these muddy waters. But when Senator Fred Thompson, a Republican, was conducting his campaign finance inquiry a few years back -- remember Al Gore and the Buddhist temple? -- Democrats blasted the GOPers for taking a narrow view of the issue by fixating on Clinton excesses, such as the White House coffees for past and potential donors. Now the Democrats are free -- theoretically, that is -- to hold the extensive hearings they once demanded. Reform-minded citizens await.

The Dems possess the power to reveal
If the Democrats had the creativity and bloodlust of the Republicans -- who felt compelled to investigate every swallow that dropped during the Clinton years -- gobs of fun could be had. An investigation into George W. Bush's missing year in the National Guard? Too much ancient history? Then how about an investigation into the use of inaccurate felon lists in Florida during the last election, a move that kept an unknown number of Florida citizens -- including many African-Americans -- from casting a vote?

Well, that might look like sour grapes. Okay. Then how about investigating what happened in February when a 19-year-old man arrested at a frat party in Texas for public intoxication was released from the local jail and picked up by Secret Service agents? The guy had told the police he was the boyfriend of Jenna Bush, daughter of George W. Bush. Was this a proper use of federal officers?

The White House refused to comment on the incident. Imagine what Representative Dan Burton, the investigate -anything -that moves Republican, would have done had it been alleged that the Clintons used Secret Service agents as chauffeurs for lawbreaking pals of the family?

Certainly, if the Democrats go investigation-happy, the Republicans and stodgy pundits and editorialists will accuse them of playing politics. The Democratic response should be, "damn straight." Politics does entail using legitimate means to bring truth to light in order to serve your constituents and discomfit your foes. The Dems do not have the power to legislate, but they possess the power to reveal.

Will they take full advantage of this opportunity? Of course not. Republican propaganda to the contrary, the Democrats -- especially those in the Senate -- are mostly not go-for-the-jugular types.

Remember Iran-contra? The Democrats, who then controlled Congress, did conduct an investigation and held a summer's worth of hearings. But from the get-go, they said they were not going to consider impeachment, and the whole inquiry lasted less than a year.

Compare that to the Republicans' mad-dog pursuits of Monicagate (a rush to impeachment) and Whitewater (an investigation of epic length). But as Bush and the Gang are still getting over the blow delivered by one fed-up moderate, it is delicious to ponder other blows that could follow. That is, that could happen if the Democrats had the gumption of Jim Jeffords.

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Albion Monitor May 28, 2001 (

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