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Treating oversight as an afterthought has its costs

Congressional Republicans now routinely lament that more of them might still have their jobs if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had lost his before election day.

That might be right. But it’s also true that Rumsfeld might have been out of work sooner had more congressional Republicans done their own job.

With rare exceptions, House and Senate Republicans refused to publicly question or conduct serious oversight on the administration’s performance in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Because congressional Republicans exerted so little pressure on President Bush to change direction, they made it easier for him to essentially stay the course despite the steady deterioration on the ground.

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Ironically, that strategy -- symbolized by Bush’s decision to retain Rumsfeld for so long -- wrecked Republicans in the midterm election as voters dissatisfied with the war swarmed to the Democrats. The Republican majority elevated its partisan interest (to bolster Bush) over its institutional responsibility (to act as an independent check on the executive) and in the end served neither the country nor its own cause.

That cautionary tale offers a larger lesson. No one wins when Congress abdicates its responsibility to scrutinize the executive branch. “If we had done better congressional oversight ... it would have been better for the country ... better for Congress, [and] it even would have been better for the president,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

Shays should know. Since 1999, he has been chairman of the national security subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee. Shays’ subcommittee has been one of the only panels in the GOP-controlled Congress to systematically probe the administration’s performance in Iraq.

Shays was also the only Republican to win a House seat in the six New England states on election day. That’s probably not a coincidence.

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Shays’ subcommittee held eight hearings on Iraq this year. It examined the risk of civil war, the role of private contractors and Bush’s plans to succeed. Even Democrats on the panel said they thought Shays pressed aggressively. “There is no doubt that one small subcommittee ... was the only [panel] in the House asking some serious questions about the administration’s conduct of the war,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a panel member. “It really was

For all its vigor, Shays’ subcommittee operated with significant limitations. Shays says he believed he received access to the policy-makers closest to the relevant decisions. But as a subcommittee, the panel did not have the leverage to command testimony from the senior officials who shaped strategy, such as Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who usually testify only before full congressional committees).

Shays says the Defense Department also waged a kind of guerrilla resistance against many of his information requests. Usually the department, citing security, refused to allow visiting subcommittee members to stay in Iraq overnight.

Last summer, Shays says, the department flatly refused his request for data on the number of competent Iraqi troops. Instead, officials told him he could have asked Rumsfeld about the issue during a visit to the Capitol. “It was extraordinarily arrogant,” Shays said, still marveling.

The subcommittee’s other inherent limitation was its visibility, or lack thereof. It doesn’t command as much attention as the House and Senate armed services and foreign affairs committees, and thus doesn’t have as much leverage to drive change.

But during the year, as conditions in Iraq disintegrated, those higher-profile committees did not meet the challenge. Before Wednesday’s session with Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the House Armed Services Committee had not held an overview hearing on Iraq since March. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) has been far more candid than his House counterpart, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), in acknowledging the need for change in Iraq. But even so, the Senate committee held just two Iraq-related hearings before its session with Abizaid last week.

Sen. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has functioned as an independent voice on Iraq and distributed 15 letters to colleagues highlighting new studies on the war. But the committee held only two hearings solely on Iraq this year.

Why did so many powerful committees look away as Iraq splintered? Shays says GOP control of Congress and the White House promoted a misguided definition of loyalty to the president. “We ended up functioning like a parliament, not a Congress,” Shays said. “We confused wanting to get through a joint agenda with not doing oversight.... The argument, subtly, without being spoken, was, ‘Why do we want to embarrass the administration?’ ”

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In fact, as Shays noted, not only the country but Congress -- and even Bush -- would have benefited if Congress had pressed the White House earlier to face failures of conception, planning and execution in Iraq. Ignoring the problems only allowed them to metastasize.

Congressional Democrats are sure to monitor Iraq more aggressively than Republicans did. But the real lesson of the GOP experience is that the new majority will also suffer if it views oversight solely as a bludgeon against its political rivals.

Will Democrats committed to allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices seriously examine the experience of other countries that have tried the practice? With ethical questions swirling around party leaders in both chambers, will Democrats resurrect the moribund congressional ethics process?

Shays, who can look north from his district all the way to the Canadian border without seeing another House Republican, can probably tell Democrats the cost if they answer “no” to questions such as that.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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