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01/11/2006 | The Election and Investigatory Powers of Congress

George Friedman

There is now only a week to go before midterm congressional elections in the United States. The legislative outcome is already fairly clear.

 

President George W. Bush lost the ability to drive legislation through Congress when he had to back away from his Social Security proposals. That situation will continue: The president will not be able to generate legislation without building coalitions. On the other hand, Congress will not be able to override his vetoes. That means that, regardless of whether the Democrats take the House of Representatives (as appears likely) or the Senate (which appears less likely but still possible), the basic architecture of the American legislative process will remain intact. Democrats will not gain much power to legislate; Republicans will not lose much.

If the Democrats take control of the House from the Republicans, the most important change will not be that Nancy Pelosi becomes House Speaker, but that the leadership of House committees will shift -- and even more significant, that there will be upheaval of committee staffs. Republicans will shift to minority staff positions -- and have to let go of a lot of staffers -- while the Democrats will get to hire a lot of new ones. These staffers serve two functions. The first is preparing legislation, the second is managing investigations. Given the likelihood of political gridlock, there will be precious little opportunity for legislation to be signed into law during the next two years -- but there likely will be ample opportunity and motivation for congressional investigations.

Should the Democrats use this power to their advantage, there will be long-term implications for both the next presidential election and foreign policy options in the interim.

One of the most important things that the Republicans achieved, with their control of both the House and Senate, was to establish control over the type and scope of investigations that were permitted. Now, even if control of only the House should change hands, the Democrats will be making those decisions. And, where the GOP's goal was to shut down congressional investigations, the Democrat Party's goal will be to open them up and use them to shape the political landscape ahead of the 2008 presidential election.

It is important to define what we mean by "investigation." On the surface, congressional investigations are opportunities for staffers from the majority party to wield subpoena power in efforts to embarrass their bosses' opponents. The investigations also provide opportunities for members of Congress and senators to make extensive speeches that witnesses have to sit and listen to when they are called to testify -- a very weird process, if you have ever seen it. Congressional investigations are not about coming to the truth of a matter in order for the laws of the republic to be improved for the common good. They are designed to extract political benefit and put opponents in the wrong. (Republicans and Democrats alike use the congressional investigative function to that end, so neither has the right to be indignant.)

For years, however, Democrats have been in no position to unilaterally call hearings and turn their staffs and subpoena powers loose on a topic -- which means they have been precluded from controlling the news cycle. The media focus intensely on major congressional hearings. For television networks, they provide vivid moments of confrontation; and the reams of testimony, leaked or official, give the print media an enormous opportunity to look for embarrassing moments that appear to reveal something newsworthy. In the course of these hearings, there might even be opportunities for witnesses to fall into acts of perjury -- or truth-telling -- that can lead to indictments and trials.

To reverse their position, the Democrats need not capture both the House and Senate next week. In fact, from the party's standpoint, that might not even be desirable. The Senate and House historically have gotten in each other's way in the hearing process. Moreover, there are a lot of Democratic senators considering a run for the presidency, but not many members of Congress with those ambitions. Senators who get caught up in congressional hearings can wind up being embarrassed themselves -- and with the competing goals of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and some of the other candidates, things could wind up a mess. But if the House alone goes to Democrats, Pelosi would be positioned to orchestrate a series of hearings from multiple committees and effectively control the news cycles. Within three months of the new House being sworn in, the political landscape could be dominated by hearings -- each week bringing new images of witnesses being skewered or news of embarrassing files being released. Against this backdrop, a new generation of Democratic congressmen would be making their debuts on the news networks, both while sitting on panels, and on the news channels afterward.

Politically, this would have two implications. First, the ability of the White House to control and direct public attention would decline dramatically. Not only would the White House not be able to shut down unwanted debate, but it would lack the ability even to take part in setting the agenda. Each week's subject would be chosen by the House Democratic leadership. Second, there will be a presidential election in two years that the Democrats want to win. Therefore, they would use congressional hearings to shape public opinion along the lines their party wants. The goal would be not only to embarrass the administration, but also to showcase Democratic strengths.

The Senate can decide to hold its own hearings, of course, and likely would if left in Republican hands. The problem is that, at the end of the day, the most interesting investigations would involve the Bush administration and corporations that can be linked to it. A GOP-controlled Senate could call useful hearings, but they would be overwhelmed by the Democratic fireworks. They just would not matter as much.

So let's consider, from a foreign policy standpoint, what would be likely matters for investigation:

  • What did the Bush administration really know about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did Bush dismiss advice from the CIA on Iraq?
  • Did the administration ignore warnings about al Qaeda attacks prior to 9/11?


These, of course, would be the mothers of all investigations. Everything would be dragged out and pored over. The fact that there have been bipartisan examinations by the 9/11 commission would not matter: The new hearings would be framed as an inquiry into whether the 9/11 commission's recommendations were implemented -- and that would open the door to re-examine all the other issues.

Following close on these would be investigations into:

  • Whether the Department of Homeland Security is effective.
  • Whether the new structure of the intelligence community works.
  • Whether Halliburton received contracts unfairly -- a line of inquiry that could touch Vice President Dick Cheney.
  • Whether private contractors like Blackwater are doing appropriate jobs in Iraq.
  • Whether the Geneva Conventions should apply in cases of terrorist detentions.
  • Whether China is violating international trade agreement.


And so on. Every scab would be opened -- as is the right of Congress, the tendency of the nation in unpopular wars, and likely an inevitable consequence of these midterm elections.

We can expect the charges raised at these hearings to be serious, and to come from two groups. The first will be Democratic critics of the administration. These will be unimportant: Such critics, along with people like former White House security adviser Richard Clarke, already have said everything they have to say. But the second group will include another class -- former members of the administration, the military and the CIA who have, since the invasion of Iraq, broken with the administration. They have occasionally raised their voices -- as, for instance, in Bob Woodward's recent book -- but the new congressional hearings would provide a platform for systematic criticism of the administration. And many of these critics seem bruised and bitter enough to avail themselves of it.

This intersects with internal Republican politics. At this point, the Republicans are divided into two camps. There are those who align with the Bush position: that the war in Iraq made sense and that, despite mistakes, it has been prosecuted fairly well on the whole. And there are those, coalesced around Sens. Chuck Hagel and John Warner, who argue that, though the rationale for the war very well might have made sense, its prosecution by Donald Rumsfeld has led to disaster. The lines might be evenly drawn, but for the strong suspicion that Sen. John McCain is in the latter camp.

McCain clearly intends to run for president and, though he publicly shows support for Bush, there is every evidence that McCain has never forgiven him for the treatment he received in the primaries of 2000. McCain is not going to attack the president, nor does he really oppose the war in Iraq, but he has shown signs that he feels that the war has not been well prosecuted. This view, shared publicly by recently retired military commanders who served in Iraq, holds out Rumsfeld as the villain. It is not something that McCain is going to lead the charge on, but in taking down Rumsfeld, McCain would be positioned to say that he supported the war and the president -- but not his secretary of defense, who was responsible for overseeing the prosecution of the war.

From McCain's point of view, little would be more perfect than an investigation into the war by a Democrat-controlled House during which former military and Defense Department officials pounded the daylights out of Rumsfeld. This would put whole-hearted Republican supporters of the president in a tough position and give McCain -- who, as a senator, would not have to participate in the hearings -- space to defend Bush's decision but not his tactics. The hearings also would allow him to challenge Democratic front-runners (Clinton and Obama) on their credentials for waging a war. They could be maneuvered into either going too far and taking a pure anti-war stance, or into trying to craft a defense policy at which McCain could strike. To put it another way, aggressively investigating an issue like the war could wind up blowing up in the Democrats' faces, but that is so distant and subtle a possibility that we won't worry about it happening -- nor will they.

What does seem certain, however, is this: The American interest in foreign policy is about to take an investigatory turn, as in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Various congressional hearings, like those of the Church Committee, so riveted the United States in the 1970s and so tied down the policymaking bureaucracy that crafting foreign policy became almost impossible.

George W. Bush is a lame duck in the worst sense of the term. Not only are there no more elections he can influence, but he is heading into his last two years in office with terrible poll ratings. And he is likely to lose control of the House of Representatives -- a loss that will generate endless hearings and investigations on foreign policy, placing Bush and his staff on the defensive for two years. Making foreign policy in this environment will be impossible.

Following the elections, five or six months will elapse before the House Democrats get organized and have staff in place. After that, the avalanche will fall in on Bush, and 2008 presidential politics will converge with congressional investigations to overwhelm his ability to manage foreign policy. That means the president has less than half a year to get his house in order if he hopes to control the situation, or at least to manage his response.

Meanwhile, the international
window of opportunity for U.S. enemies will open wider and wider.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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