It was a sign of things to come when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) bounded into the chairman's seat Wednesday to convene a hearing on electricity price controls in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
With their sudden ascension into the Senate majority, Democrats have regained control of one of Congress' most effective weapons: the power to summon witnesses to investigative hearings, backed by the authority to subpoena documents. And that could signal a major shift in the debate on a broad range of issues--energy policy foremost among them.
Though the Democrats lack a coordinated strategy, several committees plan hearings through the summer and fall that will shine a sustained spotlight on Bush administration energy policy decisions, and the role of energy companies in rising gasoline and electricity prices. Through these hearings, the Democrats hope to reshape the climate of public opinion around the energy debate, pressure both federal regulatory agencies and private companies to change their behavior--and score some political points by painting President Bush's policies as a boon to the energy industry.
"What this allows us to do is continue some of the unpleasant conversations that Bush is trying to avoid and that Bush could avoid in the more controlled atmosphere when Republicans held the Senate," said one Democratic strategist.
That prospect presents obvious problems for Bush, who already is battling the perception in opinion polls that he favors producers over consumers in the energy debate. But these inquiries also carry dangers for Democrats, who spent six years charging that congressional Republicans misused their investigative authority through repeated hearings into alleged ethical misdeeds by the Clinton administration.
"The public doesn't want to see a party that's out for blood. If they go down that path, the public will turn off just like it turned off on the Republicans," said John Podesta, President Clinton's White House chief of staff. "But what these investigations and oversight hearings can do is really help tell a story about whose side this White House is on . . . and what the impact is on real people's lives."
Senate Republicans wasted no time denouncing the hearings as a waste of time. "Let me tell you what the name of the game is now: It's pure politics," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources panel until the Democratic takeover.
Asked about Wednesday's proceedings, he replied: "Is that going to produce any more energy?"
Conscious of both the opportunities and risks, Democrats are moving cautiously to exercise their new clout. Lieberman has not issued any subpoenas in his investigation into California's power crisis, and his first hearing Wednesday was a sedate affair that broke no new ground.
Still, the authority to investigate has always been one of Congress' most potent tools, particularly when Capitol Hill and the White House are held by different parties.
Over the last century, congressional hearings have largely divided into three categories. One tradition centers on allegations of ethical wrongdoing in the executive branch--such as the probes that unearthed the Teapot Dome oil scandal during Warren G. Harding's presidency, vetted the Watergate burglary that led to President Nixon's downfall or examined the Whitewater land deal and campaign fund-raising during Clinton's presidency.
Hearings also have been used to look for misbehavior in the private sector, usually as an attempt to lay the groundwork for reform legislation, such as the Depression-era hearings on the stock market crash that led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And, finally, legislators have used the hearing forum as a competitor to the president's bully pulpit--as a means to draw attention to ideas the White House opposes. Probably the most successful example of that occurred in the 1960s, when nationally televised hearings by Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) on Vietnam crystallized opposition to the war.
During Clinton's presidency, Republicans emphasized ethics investigations. So far, in the energy debate, Democrats are focusing on the second and third categories.
"Hearings of the sort Lieberman is conducting aren't designed to disrupt [like the hearings during the Clinton administration]; they are designed to force new issues in the debate," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, who has written extensively on the process. "As long as the energy debate was conducted only inside the Republican Party, it was a debate between proponents of free markets and proponents of freer markets."
At Wednesday's hearing, Lieberman summoned half a dozen economists to make the case for the price caps on electricity rates that California Gov. Gray Davis supports and Bush adamantly opposes. Next Wednesday, Lieberman will convene a second hearing that will give Davis a national forum to make his case for price controls--then summon officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to explain why they have rebuffed that request.
Sources say Lieberman is considering a third hearing that would summon electricity producers, whom Davis has accused of "gouging" California.
As Lieberman proceeds, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the Energy Committee's new chairman, is scheduling hearings next week on electricity prices and the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to continue requiring the use of ethanol as a fuel additive in California.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is advancing on a slower but potentially broader track as he examines rising gas prices. The subcommittee he heads intends to ask major oil companies to voluntarily produce various documents on the issue, a request aides expect will be followed up with a subpoena during the summer. The aides say Levin is not likely to require oil company executives to publicly testify until late fall.
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) predicted Democrats will have a difficult time attacking Republicans on energy. "They're going to try to make politics out of a crisis," he said. But "for eight years [under Clinton], there has been this silent echo of nothing in the area of production. . . . Under their watch, little to nothing has been done, and many forms of energy have been discouraged."
Even inside Democratic ranks, opinion varies on what the hearings might accomplish.
Davis aides believe the forums could create momentum for price-cap legislation sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). But that bill faces difficult odds in the Senate; the more practical benefit of the hearings, one source close to Lieberman said, may be to increase pressure on FERC to act. That may already be happening: Senior FERC officials told The Times on Tuesday that in response to the growing political heat, the agency is considering a significant expansion of the price limits it has already ordered.
Likewise, Levin believes that the prospect of subpoenas and compelled public testimony later this year "will have a moderating quality" on gasoline price and supply decisions that oil executives make this summer, as one aide put it.
More broadly, Democrats believe any evidence that either oil or electricity producing companies have manipulated price increases will make it tougher for Bush to sell an energy agenda that stresses increased production.
"One of the things these hearings can do is begin to pull back the curtain on . . . who is in the room," Podesta said. "Who is giving the advice? Who is calling the shots?"
Yet Democrats also appear acutely conscious of the danger of appearing overly partisan, particularly Lieberman, who has meticulously cultivated a reputation for working across party lines. Tellingly, sources close to both Davis and Lieberman say that the governor's appearance at next week's hearing was more his idea than the senator's. "The goal here isn't to get Bush," insisted one close Lieberman advisor. "It's to crystallize some of the differences in terms of policy approaches."
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this story.
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