Lesson one: Congress is a co-equal branch of government

One consequence of Democrats retaking the House or Senate, Republicans fear, will be a series of congressional investigations designed to embarrass the White House.

This may not ease that concern: A well-known government watchdog is holding how-to lectures on oversight for eager congressional staff. Democrats are said to be very interested.

Officials from the Project on Government Oversight insist, however, that their series, which includes a seminar this Friday on preparing an oversight hearing, is not about partisanship.

Rather, the non-partisan watchdog says it just wants to help Congress reaffirm its role in monitoring the executive branch, an activity that Democratic aides and a few Republican ones say has been lax in recent years.

“Congress doesn’t really know what its power is,” said Jennifer Porter Gore, a POGO spokeswoman.

“We aren’t saying we need to see certain types of investigations.”

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian came up with the idea of holding the lectures after a top staffer asked her how to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request. For most information, staffers should not have to file a FOIA, a tool used by reporters and others who work outside of government.

Four members are serving as co-chairmen of the seminar series. They include Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose Finance Committee has been a particularly active investigator, and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.).

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, both Democrats, are also serving as co-chairmen of the group.

“Congressional oversight is a bipartisan responsibility and effort,” states a letter POGO sent congressional offices announcing the seminars. The group is known for releasing an annual report on Washington’s “revolving door” and for examining the competence of the security guards at the nation’s nuclear plants. 

More than 50 staffers attended the first seminar, held Sept. 15, and examined how to research government contracts. The lecture included a case study of a contract awarded after Hurricane Katrina to a car rental agency. Investigators subsequently found that the government was paying on average more than $11,000 per car to rent 16 mid-sized cars for one year.

A Republican staffer was asked to introduce the series to minimize any potential taint of partisanship.

Even so, one GOP aide who attended noted that “a lot” of Democrats have expressed interest in the series.

But the aide also agreed with complaints that the Republican-led Congress hasn’t been aggressive enough in monitoring the administration.

“Oversight frankly is something that hasn’t been emphasized a lot,” the aide said. That is especially true for personal offices, the staffer added. “A lot of staffers don’t know what their quote-unquote ‘rights’ are.”

But Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Republicans have “engaged in extensive and robust oversight.” He specifically noted efforts in the Armed Services Committee to review military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and efforts to reduce government spending by the appropriations panels.

“We are interested in diligent oversight,” Madden said. “Democrats are interested in pure obstruction. Their version of that is government by subpoena.”

The meetings sponsored by POGO are to be held one Friday each month. Six are scheduled. The topics include: how to identify conflicts of interests, raised, for example, when government officials reenter the private sector; how to get the “real story from an agency,” which includes a lesson in how to write a demand letter; and working with whistleblowers and other insiders.

While many congressional watchdogs say Congress’s oversight has been lax, lawmakers’ investigations have raised concern among administration officials.

The Hill reported in June that Clay Johnson, a senior White House official, complained in an April meeting with congressional staffers that Republican aides were overly “adversarial” in their oversight role.

Party officials, meanwhile, have sought to rally the conservative base by raising the specter of liberal Democrats using committee powers to embarrass the White House.

“Who is Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)?” asks one recent Republican National Committee press release. 

“The Dems’ choice to chair the House Governmental Reform Committee is a liberal partisan pol poised to ‘go after’ any and all political opponents,” the RNC warned.

“The lack of oversight has contributed to a series of phenomenal misjudgments that have led our country into a quagmire in Iraq, imperiled our reputation throughout the world, and undermined our economic progress at home,” Waxman said in a statement.

“Regardless of who chairs the Government Reform Committee in the new Congress, we should take our responsibilities to do oversight seriously and conduct it effectively and judiciously,” Waxman said.

The Government Reform Committee, in fact, has already issued at least one report that could embarrass the administration.

Last month it released a 90-plus-page review of the lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff, including meetings the disgraced lobbyist had with White House officials such as principal adviser Karl Rove.

Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) also led a panel that criticized the administration for its response to Hurricane Katrina.

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