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Lieberman's Weak Record on Oversight
Monday, 17 November 2008 12:45
by Jason Leopold

Most of the attention on whether Joe Lieberman should be ousted from his Senate committee chairmanship has focused on his disloyalty to Democrats and his control of homeland security issues, but there’s also the question of how well he has handled his panel’s broad government oversight responsibilities.

In contrast to his House counterpart, Rep. Henry Waxman, who has chaired dozens of high-profile hearings on the Bush administration’s wrongdoing the past two years, Sen. Lieberman has not held a single hearing on Executive Branch malfeasance nor has he issued any subpoenas demanding information from the administration.

That means Lieberman’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has passed over for hearings issues such as warrantless domestic surveillance, Iraq contracting fraud, “enhanced interrogation” of detainees, and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

Lieberman has seemed determined to ignore issues that put Bush – and especially his “war on terror” – in a negative light. In 2007, Lieberman did hold one hearing on "reconstruction challenges in both Iraq and Afghanistan."

A lifelong Democrat, Lieberman alienated many in the rank-and-file with his enthusiastic support for Bush’s “war on terror” and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2006, Connecticut Democrats rejected Lieberman as the party’s Senate nominee, but he kept his seat by running and winning as an Independent who promised to caucus with the Democrats.

In 2007 and 2008, Lieberman’s membership in the Democratic caucus was crucial to give the Democrats institutional control of the Senate by a 51-49 margin. But Lieberman angered Democrats again by campaigning for Republican John McCain, speaking at the Republican National Convention, and attacking Democrat Barack Obama.

Now, with the Democrats holding a larger Senate majority, some Democrats favor stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship, but others fear such a punishment would drive Lieberman into the Republican caucus or into a resignation that would let Connecticut’s Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell pick a GOP replacement.

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However, beyond the issue of disciplining a disloyal member of the Democratic caucus, there is the question of whether Lieberman shirked his committee’s oversight responsibilities with George W. Bush in office and now might be more aggressive against a President Obama.

Broad Powers

The broad powers of the governmental affairs committee include studying or investigating:

“The efficiency and economy of operations of all branches of the Government including the possible existence of fraud, misfeasance, malfeasance, collusion, mismanagement, incompetence, corruption, or unethical practices, waste, extravagance, conflicts of interest, and the improper expenditure of Government funds in transactions, contracts, and activities of the Government or of Government officials and employees and any and all such improper practices between Government personnel and corporations, individuals, companies, or persons affiliated therewith, doing business with the Government …”

Yet, in the past two years, Lieberman let the Bush administration off the hook, especially when abuses related to Lieberman’s favored issues, such as the Iraq War.

So, when Blackwater security contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in September 2007, Rep. Waxman immediately called hearings in the House and hauled in Blackwater Chief Executive Erik Prince to testify.

Waxman also released a lengthy report chronicling numerous cases in which Blackwater employees killed innocent Iraqis without being held accountable.

Lieberman, in explaining why he decided to sidestep the issue, said at the time, “You’ve got to set your own priorities and it was clear to me that other committees were going to pick this up.”

After the Blackwater shootings, Senate Democrats drafted legislation to set up a wartime contracting commission. Although the legislation had 28 sponsors and co-sponsors, Lieberman did not support the effort.

Explaining his relative disinterest in oversight, Lieberman told the magazine Government Executive in July, “We don’t like investigating. We like to do legislation. We don’t like investigating … just to see who is at fault.”

That became apparent again in July when calls went out to Lieberman’s committee to investigate former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root whose alleged shoddy contract work in Iraq was blamed in the electrocution of more than a dozen Americans.

Lieberman, who at the time was campaigning heavily for McCain, did not hold a hearing on the issue. Instead, it was the Democratic Policy Committee that took the lead.

Overall, Lieberman invests much less of his committee’s resources in oversight compared to Waxman’s committee. Waxman has 40 investigators, while Lieberman has only two.

Less Than Charmed

In the Senate, “we have been less than charmed with [Lieberman’s] oversight,” said Marthena Cowart, a spokeswoman for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“We need people who can weigh in on these things who can ask these hard questions. There has been virtually no oversight from his committee in the years since the start of the Iraq War.”

Contrasting the two chairmen, Cowart said Waxman “would call his mother to the witness stand” if necessary.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Lieberman’s poor oversight record “should play a bigger role in the Democrats’ decision to keep him on as chairman than his loyalties to the Democratic Party during the election.”

Lieberman “does not believe in aggressive oversight,” Sloan said. “What reason is there to think that he will do his job any differently now? Unless he doesn’t like Obama as much” and decides to scrutinize his administration’s policy decisions more closely.

In July, a group that called itself “Lieberman Must Go” collected more than 43,000 signatures that it delivered to Democratic Steering Committee calling for Lieberman’s removal as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A Lieberman spokesman said he would issue a response about Lieberman’s work as committee chairman, but he never sent one nor did he return calls seeking comment.  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently told CNN’s John King that Lieberman’s campaigning on behalf of McCain was “improper,” but noted that Lieberman has a solid Democratic voting record on many domestic issues.

"Joe Lieberman has done something that I think was improper, wrong, and ... if we weren't on television, I'd use a stronger word of describing what he did," Reid said. "But Joe Lieberman votes with me a lot more than a lot of my senators. He didn't support us on military stuff and he didn't support us on Iraq stuff. You look at his record, it's pretty good."

In an interview, Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, wouldn’t comment on Lieberman’s lack of oversight and whether that would or should play a role in the decision to strip him of his chairmanship.

“The bottom line is that he votes with the caucus a majority of the time,” Manley said.

Less Aggressive

Lieberman’s record over the past two years also differs from a more aggressive style that he displayed when Democrats controlled the Senate for much of President Bush’s first two years in office.

In 2002, Lieberman doggedly pursued the accounting scandals at Enron. Lieberman’s committee issued 29 subpoenas to Enron, its former auditing firm Arthur Andersen and the company’s board members, seeking documents about the high-flying energy company’s contacts with the Bush administration on energy policy.

But after the start of the Iraq War, Lieberman began to side more with the Bush administration, a pattern that has continued since the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007. Lieberman backed away from promises in 2006 that he would dig into the Homeland Security Department’s inept handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Lieberman’s spokeswoman Leslie Phillips told Newsweek in early 2007 that the senator had decided to “focus his attention on the future security of the American people and other matters and does not expect to revisit the White House's role in Katrina."

When Phillips was asked whether Lieberman new stand might lead to complaints that he had become too cozy with the White House, Phillips responded: “The senator is an independent Democrat and answers only to the people who elected him to office and to his own conscience.”
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