Saturday, August 07, 2010

Good house keeping is not sweeping under the rug

Congress used to investigate.
Prominent hearings by standing committees provide lawmakers a soapbox, creating the appearance of congressional action. But without the hard follow-up work of investigations that lead to real reform, many of the nation's most pressing problems remain unresolved.

Congress used to know how to investigate. In response to events ranging from war profiteering to Wall Street excesses to espionage transgressions, Congress formed special committees. Directed by powerful lawmakers, well-staffed and armed with subpoena power, these panels provided the public valuable information about government activities and spurred important legislation.

Increasingly, though, Congress's impulse has been to outsource this job to independent commissions, which have proliferated in the decades since the Warren Commission investigated President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Today, when faced with a crisis, Congress -- or the president -- appoints a commission, waits for its report and then, most of the time, files it away to obscurity.

In 1941, the Senate created a special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. With Truman as its chairman, the panel held hundreds of hearings and traveled to defense manufacturing sites across the country. As a result, the government began to hold defense contractors accountable for cost overruns, criminal misdeeds and unsatisfactory work. It is estimated that the committee saved the government as much as $15 billion (in World War II dollars) over the course of the war and saved the lives of many soldiers who would otherwise have been armed with defective weapons, machinery and gear.

In December 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan war contracting "staggering" and "breathtaking," told reporters that the country needed something similar to the Truman Committee. There remains a desperate need for such oversight today. A committee with the power to conduct a far-ranging investigation would let contractors know that someone is watching.

See: When interrogation is terror -- and when it is not

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