Congress has a constitutional responsibility to perform oversight of the Executive Branch and matters of significant public interest. At no time is the duty to conduct oversight more important than when American men and women are sent to war. Congressional Republicans did a great disservice to the American people when they decided to forego any meaningful oversight of the Bush Administration when they controlled Congress.
Rather than holding the Bush Administration accountable, Republicans made the partisan calculation that looking the other way would advance their own political interests and protect the Administration from public scrutiny. This failure to provide a “check and balance” against Executive Branch misdeeds, corruption, waste, abuse, and poor decision-making has resulted – at least in part – in one of the worst foreign and domestic policy records in American history.
In just over six months, Senate Democrats have conducted more meaningful oversight than Republicans did over the last six years. Since regaining the majority, Democrats have taken an aggressive but responsible approach to oversight. Senate Democrats have and will continue to be the American people’s advocate in ensuring that the Bush Administration is being held accountable, government is operating in the public interest, and Congress is meeting its constitutional duties.
Restoring Oversight of the Iraq War
Examining the planning and conduct of the war. In its first month, the new Democratic majority restored much-needed oversight to the Iraq war. Under Democratic leadership, the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, Judiciary, and Budget Committees have closely examined the Administration’s planning and conduct of the war in Iraq. At more than 86 hearings on the war, Senators have demanded answers and accountability, including from the following high-ranking Administration and military officials:
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates;
- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice;
- General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs;
- General George Casey, Army Chief of Staff;
- Admiral William Fallon, CENTCOM Commander; and
- General David Petraeus, Commander of Multinational Force Iraq.
Shining a spotlight on contracting abuses. Since the beginning of the 110th Congress, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee have held several hearings with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and other government officials, that have focused on waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq contracting that have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Uncovering fraud by government contractors. On the Republicans’ watch, the Department of Justice ignored evidence of fraud and waste in Iraq reconstruction contracting. In a May Judiciary Committee hearing, Senate Democrats uncovered that the Department of Justice has failed to aggressively investigate companies, like Halliburton, whose employees have repeatedly stolen from American taxpayers. The hearing further revealed that contractors have been given very small fines for illegal behavior that has involved billions of dollars, thereby giving war profiteers a virtual license to cheat.
Revealing agency mismanagement. Under Democratic leadership, the Armed Services Committee explored how the Defense Department “parked” up to $2 billion of appropriated taxpayer dollars in an interagency contracting office at the Department of the Interior. That arrangement allowed the Pentagon to justify current funding levels, compensate for its own procurement shortcomings, and hire particular contractors without full competition — at a cost to taxpayers of $23 million in unnecessary fees.
Making Government Work: Democrats Restore Checks and Balances
Under Democratic leadership, Senate committees are demanding accountability from the Bush Administration. The new majority has ended the Republican “investigation vacation” and gone back to work exposing fraud and abuse, protecting taxpayer dollars, and making government work.
Keeping America Safe
Oversight: Democratic oversight of our country’s security efforts has proved invaluable in identifying our weaknesses so that America can strengthen its homeland security. Oversight hearings have uncovered waste, fraud, and abuse in various defense-related agencies. In a hearing on the Department of Defense’s supply chain management, Senate Democrats identified the need for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to change its license inspection policy.
Action: Senate Democrats led the way toward implementing key 9/11 Commission recommendations passing the Improving America’s Security Act of 2007. This bill makes America more secure by giving our first responders the tools they need to keep us safe, making it more difficult for potential terrorists to travel into our country; advancing efforts to secure our rail, air, and mass transit systems; and improving intelligence and information sharing between state, local, and federal law enforcement. Democrats also passed legislation to better secure American borders, ports, and transit systems. The 2007 Emergency Supplemental includes hundreds of millions of dollars to protect American rail and mass transportation systems, install Explosive Detection Systems at airports, screen air cargo, and implement security measures at our nation’s ports.
Responding to the Health Needs of Veterans
Oversight: Taking care of our veterans is a top Democratic priority. Senate Democrats held hearings on veteran health care that recommended additional efforts to help veterans transition to civilian life and avoid homelessness. Senators concluded that benefit timelines should be modified to address the growing needs to treat mental illnesses, suicide, and traumatic brain injury.
Action: Led by Senate Democrats, the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs Committees held the Bush Administration and military officials accountable for the squalid conditions in outpatient facilities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Senate Democrats passed the 2008 Budget Resolution, allocating $43.1 billion for veterans, which is more than $3 billion above the President’s request and represents the largest increase in veterans’ health care in history.
Tackling High Gas Prices
Oversight: With gas prices at record highs, the Republican Congress looked the other way, refusing to investigate soaring prices at the pump. Under Democratic leadership, Senators have investigated Big Oil, uncovering that low-refinery output and underinvestment in the refining industry have contributed to the current spike in gasoline prices. In hearings before the Joint Economic Committee, Senators found that instead of working to address these problems, the oil and refining industry has put up barriers to market penetration of clean, renewable fuels.
Action: The Senate passed landmark energy legislation that protects consumers. The Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 increases the production of homegrown renewable fuels, makes price gouging a punishable crime, and increases fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks, and SUV’s for the first time in 20 years.
Keeping America Competitive
Oversight: Recognizing the importance of keeping America competitive, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing on ensuring America’s advantage in science, research, and technology. The topic compelled Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to testify, who remarked that “[t]oo often, we lack the political will to take the steps necessary to ensure that America remains a technology and innovation leader. In too many areas, we are content to live off the investments that previous generations made for us – in education, in health care, in basic scientific research – but are unwilling to invest equal energy and resources into building on this legacy to ensure that America’s future is as bright and prosperous as its present. America simply cannot continue along this course. We must invest now to secure our economic and technological leadership for the future.”
Action: Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which increases the nation’s investment in basic and innovative research; strengthens educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from elementary through graduate school; and develops the infrastructure needed to enhance innovation and competitiveness in the United States.
Eliminating Corruption in Student Lending
Oversight: The Department of Education has failed to provide adequate oversight of the student lending industry and the Republican-led Congress failed to act on evidence of corruption. Under Democratic leadership, the HELP Committee and the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs have investigated rising higher education costs and the role of private lenders. Hearings revealed that federal student aid programs have not kept pace with the rising costs of college education, forcing more and more students to rely heavily on private loans that leave them facing enormous debt at high interest rates. These investigations have also addressed conflicts of interest and improper relationships between lenders and university officials.
Action: Senate Democrats passed the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which, among other things, provides important oversight of the out-of-control student loan industry and puts an end to the cozy relationships between lenders and universities.
Ensuring Access to Quality Education
Oversight: Senate Democrats recognize that investments in education and training programs are critical to safeguarding our children’s future. In hearings before the HELP Committee, Democrats identified room for much needed improvement in supporting and retaining middle and high school students to set them on a path to success. Senator Kennedy and witnesses laid out steps we can take to strengthen middle schools and high schools to bring them into the 21st century.
Action: Congressional Democrats have increased funding for education and training programs. The 2008 Budget Resolution provides for an increase in discretionary spending for education and training programs of $9.5 billion (including $2 billion in additional 2009 advance appropriations) above President Bush’S.2008 Budget Request. The Budget Resolution rejected the President’s program eliminations and cuts and provided additional funding for investments in educational opportunities, social services, and job training. The resolution also provides for the largest increase since 2002 in funding for elementary and secondary programs.
Cutting Taxes for the Middle Class
Oversight: Expanding middle-class prosperity is a top priority in the 110th Congress. The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) punishes taxpayers who are married, those with large families, and those who live in higher-tax states.
In its hearing on the AMT, the Senate Finance Committee uncovered that the AMT is affecting fewer wealthy taxpayers while raising taxes on an increasing number of middle-class Americans. The Committee concluded that uncertainty about the future amount of taxes owed can only be solved by a permanent solution to the AMT problem.
Action: Senate Democrats passed the 2008 Budget Resolution, which ensures that the number of taxpayers subject to the AMT will not be allowed to increase in 2007, giving Congress and the Administration time to come up with a permanent solution. The resolution will protect some 20 million middle-class taxpayers from being subject to the tax.
Ending Mortgage Abuse
Oversight: As the sub-prime mortgage crisis balloons, it is increasingly evident that lax oversight of the lending industry during the Republican majority has contributed to Americans losing their homes. In a hearing on safeguarding homebuyers, Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee discussed ways to ensure that no American is taken advantage of when trying to buy a home. The hearing revealed that discrimination by mortgage brokers has made minorities more susceptible to predatory loan practices and that collusion among poorly regulated mortgage lenders, brokers, and appraisers goes on because of a lack of federal oversight and enforcement.
Action: Senator Schumer introduced the Borrower’s Protection Act, which would cut down on irresponsible mortgage lending in the future. The legislation establishes federal regulations for independent mortgage brokers and prohibits brokers and lenders from steering borrowers into loans more expensive than they actually need.
Oversight: Led by its Democratic majority, the HELP Committee has studied the safety of prescription drugs, and the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to properly test drugs before they go on the market. The HELP Committee has also studied whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should oversee the marketing, manufacture, and sale of tobacco products. Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee have made drug safety a priority. The Committee investigated the FDA’s drug approval process for widely-used prescription drugs like Avandia.
Action: Under Democratic leadership, Senate Committees have continued to investigate drug safety and urged the FDA to increase its oversight and enforcement.
Protecting the Environment and Addressing Global Warming
Oversight: Hearings in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works discussed the consensus within the scientific community that human-contributed greenhouse gas emissions are causing global climate change. Witnesses at these hearings presented evidence of technology that exists today to improve energy efficiency and put the world on the path toward cutting global emissions. Committee hearings concluded that combating global warming and creating economic opportunity are not mutually exclusive goals.
Action: Senate Democrats passed the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007, an energy bill that will grow our economy, strengthen our national security, and protect our environment. The bill combines provisions to increase appliance efficiency, reduce oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030, increase production of homegrown renewable fuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022 with measures to protect the environment, encourage the President to make the United States a leader in energy diplomacy, make price gouging a punishable crime during declared energy emergencies, and increase fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and SUV’s for the first time in 20 years.
Uncovering Mismanagement in Katrina Recovery Efforts
Oversight: Led by its Democratic majority, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee traveled to New Orleans to examine rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region and to learn whether the federal government is doing enough to assist those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Committee’s Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery uncovered that inexperienced and transient FEMA staff contributed to the inefficient, slow, and contradictory reconstruction effort. Democratic investigations revealed continued mismanagement of the clean up effort and that damage in Louisiana is significantly higher than the Bush Administration’s initial estimates.
Action: In the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007, Senate Democrats provided $6.9 billion to keep Democrats’ commitment to the people affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Cracking Down on Violent Crime
Oversight: Decreased federal funding under the Bush Administration has contributed to a rise in violent crime. Recognizing the need to address the increase in crime, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on prevention and the federal response to crime. Democratic Senators found that the Bush Administration has drastically reduced federal funding to support local law enforcement and that local law enforcement agencies have been asked to do more – fighting traditional crime and terrorism – with less.
Action: Under Democratic-leadership, Congress has begun the process of restoring funding for law enforcement assistance programs. Within six weeks of convening the 110th Congress, Democrats passed H.J.Res.20, the Revised Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2007, which provided funding for the nine remaining appropriations bills that were not completed by Republicans in the 109th Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also approved S.368,the COPS Improvement Act of 2007, which would authorize $1.15 billion per year for police hiring grants, law enforcement technology grants, and community prosecutor grants.
Oversight: The FBI abused its Patriot Act authority by inappropriately issuing hundreds of National Security Letters (NSLs) to spy on innocent Americans. More disturbing, the FBI also obtained private information on citizens by issuing so-called exigent letters: letters which were misused and not authorized by any statute. In its March hearing on FBI oversight, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out that the Inspector General’s finding that the FBI abused its power to issue NSLs is just the latest in a long line of problems at the Justice Department. The hearing uncovered that beyond the inappropriate use of regular NSLs, the FBI also circumvented basic checks and balances by issuing so-called “exigent,” or emergency, letters to obtain private information on Americans in non-emergency situations. The FBI has yet to adopt some of the Inspector General’s recommendations for preventing future abuses and the Bush Administration has failed to provide the Intelligence Committee with requested information on its proposal to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Action: Democratic Senators have called for new legislation that strikes the right balance between fighting terrorism and protecting privacy rights and civil liberties.
Caring for Seniors
Oversight: While much progress has been made in the twenty years since passage of the Nursing Home Reform Act, too many nursing homes still fail to meet the needs of their residents. In its hearing on the Act’s effectiveness, Democratic members of the Special Committee on Aging uncovered that the regulatory system that governs nursing homes does not measure patients’ quality of care and quality of life because it focuses on providers instead of consumers.
Action: The Chairman of the Committee,Senator Kohl, promised continued, vigilant oversight of the nursing home industry and offered concrete steps to improve our nation’s nursing homes.
Taking Politics Out of the Courtroom
Oversight: The American people rely on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to uphold the Constitution and prosecute cases free of political bias. In astonishing testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Department officials have contradicted sworn statements, fell prey to selective memory, and described a Department that has been transformed into a political wing of the White House. Through his own testimony, Attorney General Gonzales appears to have lowered long-held standards for determining what constitutes improper political influence on Department of Justice decision-making. In his most recent statements before the Committee, Attorney General Gonzales contradicted previous testimony that described his use of dubious late-night tactics to extend a domestic spying program.
Action: Senate Democrats passed the Preserving United States Attorney Independence Act of 2007, which restored an effective, proven method for appointing U.S. Attorneys. As the scandal continues to unfold, several DOJ officials have resigned, including the Deputy Attorney General; the Attorney General’s chief of staff; the Deputy Attorney General’s chief of staff; the Department’s White House liaison; and the White House Political Director. The nominee to become Associate Attorney General requested that his nomination be withdrawn rather than testify under oath at a confirmation hearing. Now both Democrats and Republicans are calling for Attorney General Gonzales’s resignation.
Cutting Passport Red Tape
Oversight: Democrats are committed to securing our nation’s borders and ensuring that American citizens can secure passports for international travel. Senate Democrats held a hearing on the lengthy backlogs in passport processing by the State Department due to a surge in applications triggered by a new law that will require a passport for U.S. citizens who travel in the Western Hemisphere. This hearing revealed that the scale of the problem is large and much work needs to be done.
Action: The Democratic Senate passed the Passport Backlog Reduction Act of 2007, which will reduce application processing times, provide better information for passport customers, and help ensure that emergency cases are addressed.