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City of Brass

City of Brass

Obama and oversight

I’m not a big fan of the “100 day honeymoon” period for new presidencies – if anything, the tone on day one is probably predictive of the entire term. In that regard, I don’t have a lot to complain about yet, as Obama has moved swiftly on executive orders to undo many of the most egregious policy abuses of the Bush Administration.

By the same token, however, it isn’t too early to start asking how the Obama Administration will be held accountable for its actions. Open government is not what I mean – it’s great that the White House web site will post Obama’s executive orders and draft legislation for public review, but that doesn’t replace active oversight of the Executive Branch by the Legislative branch. It is worth remembering that of all branches of government, Congress, not the President, is the one closest to being the true will of the People, and the system of checks and balances demands that Congress have the power to keep the Executive in check.

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Now, under the Bush Administration, there was essentially zero oversight. The lack of any meaningful check by Congress (even during the final two years with a Democratic majority), couple with the ideological extremism of the Bush Administration officials, led to all sorts of abuses, such as warrantless wiretapping, vindictive outing of CIA agents, ignoring congressional subpoenas, using signing statements, and much more, all under the rubric of “executive privilege” and national security.

It is laudable that Obama has moved to undo much of the damage, amounting to willingly ceding the raw power of the presidency that Bush amassed (a remarkable thing in and of itself!). But relying on the goodwill of the President is not a solution; what is needed is an enforcement so that he can not unilaterally redo what he has undone. Or, for that matter, his successors cannot either.

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In other words, Congress, fortified with a stronger Democratic majority, must now resume its watchdog role over the Executive. However, it is easier said than done, when Congress is the same party as the president, and there is such an urgent need to make genuine progress rather than be stuck in pointless obstructionism and legislative gridlock (as surely would be the case were the GOP to be in control). A Newsweek article gives an idea of how gingerly the various Congressional committees are moving forwards with respect to their watchdog duties:

Dingell, the cantankerous chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was pushed out by Rep. Henry Waxman,
who as head of Oversight and Government Reform conducted aggressive
headline-hunting probes into alleged malfeasance by the Bush
administration. But with Obama in the White House, Waxman is expected
by congressional aides to use his post largely to pursue health-care
and environmental legislation. The new oversight chair is Edolphus Towns,
74, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is not known for his investigative prowess,
or even his attendance. He missed some hearings on the financial
bailout and was conspicuously absent for Waxman’s grilling of pitching
ace Roger Clemens, whom Towns had greeted in a friendly photo op a few
days earlier. (An aide said Towns missed the hearings due to shoulder
surgery and the flu.) In comments last week, Towns pledged “vigorous”
oversight of the bailout and said he’d be on the lookout for “waste,
fraud and abuse.” So far, he’s identified one issue he definitely wants
to investigate: why there’s no playoff system for NCAA football. The
aide said Towns will be a “conciliator, a coalition builder,” not a
flamethrower.

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Other committees that historically
conducted aggressive investigations, including the House and Senate
banking committees, are proceeding gingerly when it comes to questions
about the incoming Obama administration. Bill Duhnke, the Republican
staff director for the Senate banking committee, told NEWSWEEK that the
panel’s Democratic majority, led by Sen. Chris Dodd, flatly refused a
GOP request to summon Geithner to a pre-confirmation hearing.
Similarly, Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate
Judiciary Committee, complained that the committee’s chair, Sen.
Patrick Leahy, refused a GOP request to subpoena witnesses to testify
about Attorney General-designate Eric Holder’s involvement in the Marc
Rich pardon.

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It’s ridiculous to expect that Congress be overtly hostile towards Obama, though that will be the argument that Republican partisans will make. What is needed is for Congress to balance the need to support the President’s agenda and mandate for bold, sweeping action in the face of so many crises, with the need to ensure that the action is optimized for maximum beneficial effect. And, in the unlikely event that Obama tries to overstep his bounds, Congress needs to be awake enough to notice – and act accordingly.

In many ways i think the present situation is ideal. A Dmeocratic president for the vision and agenda, a Democratic majority to ensure that things are moving forwards, and a Republican minority that can play a devil’s advocate role. I am actually hoping that the Democrats do not reach 60 seats in the Senate, so they are forced to look across the aisle for support.

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UPDATE: There are at least ten Democrats who might cause the White House some  concern over the nextfew years, thankfully – including the vice president! :)

UPDATE: This is troubling – in at least one case, the Obama Administration has supported the unitary executive arguments of the Bush Administration. Is Congress paying attention?

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