A Slight Oversight: Congressional Investigations of the Executive Branch Have Been Sandbagged by the White House and Its Allies on Capitol Hill. Can the Democrats Revive a Lost Art?

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WHEN SENATE MAJORITY LEADER LYNDON Johnson became vice president in 1961, he persuaded his protege and successor, Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, to let Johnson continue running the Senate Democratic caucus. The vice president, constitutionally and ceremonially, is Senate president, voting only to break ties. However, no vice president had ever proposed to function as a quasi-senator, much less caucus leader. Mansfield loyally acceded to Johnson's scheme, but the caucus rebelled. According to the official transcript quoted by biographer Robert Caro, Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, a Johnson ally, indignantly warned, "We are creating a precedent of concrete and steel. The Senate will lose its powers by having a representative of the executive branch watching our private caucuses."

Quite so. But what LBJ, the most powerful majority leader in Senate history, could not obtain by persuasion, Vice President Dick Cheney, who never served in the Senate, simply arrogated. Cheney regularly attends Senate Republican caucus meetings, sometimes accompanied by Karl Rove. Just in case Cheney and Rove needed help keeping the caucus in line, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was handpicked by the White House to succeed the ousted Trent Lott.

"It's totally unprecedented" says Democratic Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont. "The caucus is where you candidly discuss when to back the administration and when to adopt a different position." This executive-branch capture of the senatorial Republican Party helps explain how the Bush administration, despite plummeting public support and scandal after scandal, avoids one of the most fundamental of checks and balances--congressional oversight.

Congressional investigative hearings date back to March 1792, when the House of Representatives investigated a disastrously failed military mission into Indian territory, which left some 600 troops dead. President George Washington complied with the House's request for documents. A House select committee faulted the War Department's private contractors for supply failures. Premonitions of Halliburton--except that the Republican Congress has declined to investigate Halliburton.

Despite skirmishes over executive privilege, congressional oversight has been a key part of our system, regardless of which party controlled which branch--until the administration of George W. Bush.

The default of Republicans in Congress is staggering. No ongoing investigations on waste and incompetence at the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing on the vast self-serving mess that is the Medicare prescription-drug program. Nothing serious on the scandals by defense contractors in Iraq, or on Cheney's possible role in securing a $7 billion dollar no-bid contract for Halliburton, or on his secret energy task force. Nothing on the enforcement default by the Environmental Protection Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No serious oversight of the FBI. Precious little on the ongoing failure to rebuild New Orleans, or on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or the illegal domestic spying, or on the Justice Department's failure to enforce the right to vote. Nothing on the data-mining program that has revived the supposedly discarded John Poindexter plan by the back door.

The first notable breach in this solid wall of complicity with the White House came only in early September when Republicans Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe broke with the Intelligence Committee chairman, Bush loyalist Pat Roberts, and voted with committee Democrats to force Roberts to make public a confidential report. The report repudiated White House claims of intelligence support for links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and criticized the White House reliance on Ahmad Chalabi's Iranian National Congress. Even so, the committee report ducked the issue of administration manipulation of the intelligence community. This report gives a small glimmer of what checks and balances would be like, with a restoration of normal oversight. …