Huffington Post political editor Thomas B. Edsall recently spoke with House Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman, who has led many of the high-profile investigations into the Bush administration over the last year.
Tom Edsall: I was looking over your website and some clips. I noticed you have 61 investigative agendas or targets. How would you assess how you've done on those? Where have you made the most headway? Henry Waxman: We've been looking at three general themes in our Oversight investigations. One, we want to look at waste, fraud, and abuse of tax payers dollars whether it's reconstruction in Iraq, or a waste of money by the Coast Guard in building ships that don't float or the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The second general theme that we have pursued is whether the government agencies are doing their job to represent the people, to serve the public interests and not the special interests. I'm a strong supporter of government; I know what an important difference it can make in the lives of people in a very beneficial way, and it angers me when we see incompetence and mismanagement of government agencies that once were looked upon with great pride like FEMA and FDA and are now tainted by cronyism and failure. And then the third theme is that we've got to hold this administration accountable. One of the main purposes of Oversight is to provide the checks and balances between the independent branches of government, and I think Oversight is -- investigation -- may be in some ways even more important than legislating because we're making sure that the laws are carried out, we're trying to figure out what other laws may be needed, and we're trying to keep people honest. Government in a democracy functions best when it's open and transparent and accountable, and with this Bush administration we've had an administration, in its zeal for power, try to operate in secrecy and without being accountable. TE: Is there a way to quantify your success, especially on this last front with the accountability of the administration? HW: I don't know that you quantify it, but I think we have raised some very important issues. We have an investigation of the Bush administration's pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear program. I think this is tremendously important, not just to fill in the historical record, but in order to know what happened so that this administration can be held accountable for it and we can understand how we got into the situation we're now in. We've looked at the White House political activities. I think in many ways this administration saw the U.S. Federal Government as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party. They were politicizing government actions, even holding Republican political briefings and activities on government property - using government funds - using government personnel. And I think the hearings we had and the ongoing investigation that we're doing about the disclosure of the cover of CIA Agent Valerie Plame's identity goes to the serious question of how this administration handles national security information: whether that has become so politicized that our country's security is jeopardized when it may be in the interest of this administration - Karl Rove and others - to strike out at Ambassador [Joe] Wilson because he pointed out the wrongness of the Bush Administration's argument to go to war by targeting his wife, and not only jeopardizing her career, but all those that she had dealings with as a covert agent for the CIA. As the first President Bush indicated in very, very strong terms, he equated such activities as tantamount to treason. If we're having disclosure of CIA agents and misinformation about the friendly fire death of Corporal Tillman, or interference with government scientists' reports on climate change and other environmental agents and the politicization of science overall in government, I think those are important areas for us to pursue so that the public becomes aware of it and we hope that we can change what's going on. TE: When did you first come to Congress? HW: I was elected in 1974, that first Watergate election. TE: So you've seen one, two, three, four, five administrations? HW: Yeah I guess. TE: How would you rank Bush II in terms of integrity? HW: This administration is the most secretive that we've ever had, much more even than Richard Nixon. Not that I was here during the Nixon administration, but certainly we have a record of how he handled things. I think this administration has decided to be less accountable and less open to the government, to the American people. They act as if the government belongs to them and not the people by the way they have tried to operate outside the norms of public scrutiny. And, they have given more misinformation - every time they have been challenged, it just moves right on to the next issue - than I've ever seen in any administration. TE: How did they get away with this? Nixon ran into real problems as soon as disclosures started to come out. Even Reagan backed off when various controversies emerged, but this administration, really until 2005, just kept plowing ahead in many of the areas you're describing. Was it the 9/11 that gave them the leverage? HW: They use the attack on September 11, 2001, as an excuse to, in many ways, shred the constitution and act unilaterally. The founders of this country viewed with alarm any concentration of power with the wise understanding that, when there's a concentration of power, it would lead to abuse, it would lead to arrogance, and they wanted to avoid it at all costs. And that was why they came back with a system to provide checks and balances between the three independent branches of government. Well, the Congress abdicated its responsibility during six years of the Bush administration. Rather than seeing their job as leaders of an independent branch of government, they saw their job as being good Republicans first. And it was such a stark contrast to the way they handled Oversight when Clinton was president. They used it in a very political way then by running after any accusation no matter how small or inconsequential by issuing subpoenas and calling hearings and making wild accusations that turned out to be inaccurate. And when Bush became president, there wasn't a scandal big enough for them to ignore. I often try to just show the juxtaposition of how much effort the Republicans put into an investigation of whether President Clinton misused his Christmas card list for political purposes to which they made a great to-do, for which they were willing to hold public hearings and attack President Clinton. And yet, when it came to treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the outing of a CIA agent, the misinformation that has been given to the American people to get us into war, the waste of taxpayers' dollars by contracting out more government services and wasting dollars as a result -they just didn't see that as worthwhile to hold hearings. So, I think Oversight is an important job that needs to be handled responsibly, with integrity, and not for partisan purposes, but to try to work on a bi-partisan basis to carry out our duty.
TE: How successful do you think you'll be in finding out the scope of the Vice President's office in setting policy and its secretiveness? HW: It has been very clear from even before September 11, 2001, that Vice President Cheney has been the dominant force of this administration, and that he viewed the executive branch as the predominant and preeminent branch of government. I think the term is unitary - the unitary executive branch, that the other branches were supposed to defer to the executive branch. He showed this early on when some of us asked for just basic information about how his energy task force functioned: who appeared before it, what special interest groups got a chance to make their case, what do they want... routine kind of questions that Republicans certainly asked when Hilary Clinton shared the health taskforce under her husband's presidency. And yet Vice President Cheney absolutely stonewalled, refused to answer questions about it. It was obvious one of the reasons he refused to answer questions is that he met with the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries and came out with proposals that benefited them, which awarded them billions of dollars in direct subsidies and tax breaks, which continue on now even though the prices of energy are higher than ever before, and they're making record profits. The Vice President's office appears to have been very much involved in trying to manage the administration's efforts to minimize science on global warming. They've even blamed environmental efforts for the California electricity challenge when all of us were telling them that we thought it was the electricity wholesalers that were gouging us. I remember even meeting with Vice President Cheney and he said, "No, it was California's environmental laws," and then later after the collapse of Enron, we were able to hear the tapes of people at the executive offices of Enron talking about how they were going to withhold supplies of electricity so that they could raise the price and gouge the consumers. So the Vice President's office has been the dominant one on foreign policy and domestic policy. The Washington Post has done a series on how even the Vice President was so skillful that he could go around President Bush when he wanted policies that he couldn't convince Bush to support and he got the Congress to go along with it and forced the president to support those positions later on. And we also know that Vice President Cheney, when he was challenged on the presidential order that required him to keep certain records about how he handled national security information, his response, in refusing to cooperate with Bush's executive order, was to say that he wasn't even part of the executive branch because he was also the president of the Senate- a ludicrous argument. TE: How deep do you think you'd be able to get into those operations? HW: Well we are doing the best we can to get to facts, and we want the facts to be made public and speak for themselves, but there's no question that this administration is putting up every barrier they can to make it more difficult if not to actually prevent the Oversight work of both the House and the Senate and all of our committees that are engaged in this effort. TE: Have most of your attempts to have White House witnesses appear been blocked?
HW: I don't want to reach that conclusion - some of these efforts are ongoing. Sometimes we've had to work with White House Counsel Fred Fielding to narrow our requests for witnesses and information, and he, as a skills lawyer, is doing the best he can to represent his client, but also he's trying to do his best to try to avoid some of the confrontations that we also want to avoid. But on the other hand, he still represents a very difficult client that has an agenda of secrecy that they're still trying to maintain. TE: Is that driven by Cheney or by Bush or...? HW: It's hard to know - I think it's probably driven by both. TE: Have you kept track of how many people have resigned since Democrats took over the Oversight process? HW: No I haven't - there are still others that I think should resign. One example that comes to mind is this woman Lorita Doan who's the head of the General Services Administration where even the Bush-appointed special investigator said that she's violated the Hatch Act and recommended that President Bush fire her. But she hasn't resigned nor has she been fired up to this point. There are others who may well decide to leave for lots of different reasons in the coming months, but I haven't kept track. TE: Who else do you think should resign? HW: I'm going to single out Lorita Doan because she comes to mind as someone we've looked at carefully and found wanting as a high government official who did not respect the responsibility of trying to protect the taxpayers' funds in some of the contracts that she let out and the cavalier way she misrepresented to our committee her active participation in a White House scheme to politicize her agency and other agencies as well. But I'm not making any recommendations of who ought to resign. TE: There's no Waxman list? HW: (Laughter) TE: In the coming months between now and the end of the year, do you have an agenda you want to accomplish? HW: We have a lot of ongoing investigations. We're going to push them forward; pursuing, again, the important job of watching out for the taxpayers' money being used appropriately, the government agencies doing their job and trying to keep this administration honest. TE: Have you lined up hearings on specific subjects or geared up...? HW: It's interesting that one investigation often leads to another. We looked at how Jack Abramoff was dealing with the executive branch, and as a result of that investigation, we found out that the executive branch was using Republican National Committee emails to respond to him on government business, and that made us aware of the widespread use of Republican National Committee emails for other government purposes, which for the White House is in violation of the Presidential Records Act. In other areas, it raises further questions about the politicization of the federal government in so many different ways by trying to hide information and use the government for political purposes. And after looking at Lorita Doan at the GSA hosting a Republican briefing/rally, we found out that other agencies were doing the same thing, including the Office of the Drug Czar, which under the law is supposed to be clearly non-partisan, but who using government funds appeared to have gone to districts where Republicans were very much under the gun in the last campaign. So, one thing leads to another and we're not in the process of wrapping up our investigations because this year may be over, we're going to continue our investigations and follow various leads in next year as well. TE: How cooperative have the Republicans on the committee been? HW: To a great extent they have been cooperative. It's just not only the fact that Tom Davis (Republican of Virginia) is a collegial person, but he has a very strong commitment to the institution of the Congress and believes that we need to do our job and pursue facts. Oftentimes we'll disagree as to what the facts mean, what conclusions to draw from them, but he's been helpful in making sure that our committee, which he chaired the last four years, is able to pursue matters appropriately. But there are issues where the Republicans have backed very partisan on our committee and objected to our investigations. The Republicans adopted a rule when Dan Burton was chairman of the committee - he of course was the man who pursued absolutely irresponsible investigations against Clinton and the Democrats during the last years of the Clinton administration - and the Republicans gave him and all future chairs of that committee absolute power to issue subpoenas unilaterally without even going to the committee and asking for approval when there was a strong disagreement about issuing a subpoena. It also gave him the power to disclose information without asking the committee's authorization to do so under certain circumstances. I objected to those rules when they were adapted, but when we took power I didn't change them. However, when it came to issuing subpoenas, where the Republicans disagreed with us in issuing them, I called a meeting. And I remember former chairman Davis leaning over to me and saying, "Since you've got unilateral power to issue these subpoenas, why are you asking us to vote on it?" And I said, "Well I just think it's a good idea for members to have that responsibility and accountability to weigh in on these subpoenas." But we sought three subpoenas, and it was amazing to me to hear people like Chris Shays and Dan Burton and John Michael [McHugh] and some of the other Republicans on our committee scream holy murder; that we were a Stalinist state and we were doing things that we shouldn't be doing by issuing three subpoenas. I had to remind them that they voted to give Dan Burton unilateral power to issue subpoenas and he issued over a thousand subpoenas when he was going after Clinton and the Democrats. We weren't going after anybody, we were just trying to get facts about the Republican National Committee emails and information about the Bush administration's pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear efforts - perfectly legitimate investigations, yet they acted in a very partisan and antagonistic way. TE: Congress is held in low esteem now, but clearly panels like your committee and others have been doing substantial amounts of work. How do you square those two things where even Democrats hold Congress in low esteem, but in fact, in some cases, you've forced fairly substantial changes in policy and personnel in the administration that Democrats, you would think, would be applauding. HW: I think that many Democrats have been frustrated that after our victory in 2006 taking back the House and the Senate, we still have been unable to end this war. They would like to see us, many of them, impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney, turn the country around and make different decisions and pass lots of legislation that we would like to see in law. They forget, however, that Bush is still president, that the Senate operates with a filibuster possibility so that a 60 vote majority is needed, not just a 51 vote majority out of 100. Many would like to see more of a confrontation between the Democrats and the Republicans than they've seen so far. I understand their frustrations, but I think they're ignoring the fact that we have very strong leadership being given to the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in pursuing very importing issues and legislation that have passed the House in the area of child healthcare, energy policy, trying to deal with global warming, trying to set a deadline on the Iraq War... we haven't got any of these things enacted into law yet, and we hope we'll be able to make policy and pass legislation, but we have enormous frustrations that keep us from success so far. TE: Where do you stand on impeachment? HW: I have serious doubts about whether impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney is a good idea. I do not believe that two thirds of the Senate would vote for conviction, so I don't think ultimately it would be successful in removing them from office, but as the chairman of a committee that's conducting investigations, I would have no credibility whatsoever if I were part of an effort for impeachment, so I don't even want to consider being a supporter of this idea. TE: Do you have a presidential candidate you're supporting? HW: No, I will certainly support the Democratic nominee and I'm waiting to see who the nominee is that can win. We're waiting to support the Democratic nominee that can win. I hope any of them can win, but I'm still looking them over carefully. TE: And how far do you think Congress will get this September on the Iraq issue? HW: Well I think it's going to be a major fight this fall on the Iraq issue. We're awaiting the report from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on what they think has resulted from the surge, but I think most people already know that the purpose of this so-called surge policy was to give the government in Iraq breathing room so they can make a political accommodation to bring in the Sunnis and the Kurds along with the Shiites in a government in Iraq that can unite the country and provide stability which is certainly a lower goal than what President Bush set out as we were told we were going to bring about a model democracy for the Middle East and a strong American ally. We're now hoping we can get stability in the hands of a Shiite-run government that would bring in the other ethnic groups so they won't be engaged in a civil war with the likelihood that a Shiite-run government in Iraq will have very strong and close ties to Iran. That's what we're hoping for, but I think it's obvious that the Malaki government in Iraq is not capable, even with the breathing space the surge is supposed to have provided him, making the political decisions that could lead to stability and stop the civil war that's going on. TE: If you had the power to set policy, what would you do? HW: I think the U.S. should make it clear to the Iraqis that they've got to solve the problems in Iraq themselves, and that the U.S. forces cannot be used as an excuse to be intransigent in their willingness to make political accommodations. I think the best way to do that is to set deadlines and make it clear to them that we'll try to be of assistance to them in training their military and their police force, but it's their responsibility, not ours. TE: Very good. Well let me see what I can do with this. I really appreciate this. HW: (Laughter) Ok, good luck. TE: Take care.