On May 9, 1975, a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church subpoenaed acting CIA director William Colby during an investigation of intelligence agencies. Colby (after practice sessions with President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld) was grilled about US covert operations, illegal assassinations and domestic spying abuses. The stunning revelations of the Church Committee hearings were followed by several years of rigorous Congressional oversight and reform legislation.
How can progressives best grab the momentum from the November elections to promote bold initiatives to end illegal war, fight poverty and inequality, and rein in the corporations that are destroying our democracy? Congressional oversight hearings could be one critical tool. And that’s not as boring as it sounds.
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are in line to chair ten of the twenty standing House committees and as many as thirty-five subcommittees. If they are media savvy and work creatively with activists and affected communities, they could turn humdrum hearings into blockbuster investigations that wrench the nation’s attention away from Britney and Paris (not the city) and onto the pressing matters of our time. And while the Democrats’ narrow majority will make it difficult to pass very much progressive legislation in the 110th Congress, well-designed hearings could lay the foundation for significant reforms in the medium and long term.
While impeachment may be “off the table,” Congress has a duty to investigate executive-branch misconduct to insure that such abuses of power never occur again. The wider public will be repulsed if Democrats appear to copycat GOP partisanship with vindictive investigations rather than solutions to the nation’s urgent problems. Thus, rather than going for Bush’s jugular, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees will probably first take up the matter of “signing statements”–the President’s practice of indicating the provisions of new laws he doesn’t intend to enforce–which effectively undermine Congressional legislative intent and powers. This will wisely begin the process of laying out, case by case, the unconstitutional usurpation of power without deflecting media coverage from other urgent matters.
I have received hundreds of suggestions for hearings (add yours at www.ips-dc.org/hearings) and have filtered the ideas through the following strategic prisms: Do they advance a bold progressive vision and connect to organized movements? Do they tell dramatic human-interest stories and lay the groundwork for progressive policy victories? Do they look forward and showcase new ideas but also put irresponsible corporations and the Bush agenda on the defensive? What follows are ten proposed hearings, culled from the suggestions of others and my own investigations, that would underscore the important progressive narrative that “we are all in this together” and expose the greed and selfish corporate interests undermining our common good.
1. The Katrina Divide. When the levees broke, more was revealed than just FEMA incompetence and presidential indifference. We got a horrifying picture of an America deeply fractured along lines of race and class. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dramatized the results of two decades of “shift, shrink and shaft” antigovernment policies that, through privatization and corporate cronyism, have fueled the greatest polarization of income, wealth and opportunity since the Gilded Age.
Congress should team up with grassroots groups to hold hearings in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to keep the oversight fire lit under FEMA, HUD and other federal agencies. But hearings must also revisit the larger questions of accountability and national direction: How did we allow this to happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? How much economic inequality should our society tolerate?
2. War Profiteering. During World War II Franklin Roosevelt said, “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.” While FDR set the moral tone, it was Senator Harry Truman who led a bipartisan investigation that saved taxpayers more than $15 billion ($200 billion in 2005 dollars). The current Congress should invoke Give ’em Hell Harry’s investigative legacy by kicking off war-profiteering hearings at the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri.
The Government Accountability Office recently identified thirty-six areas needing urgent Congressional oversight. At the top of the list was investigating the billions squandered by the Defense Department in the most privatized war in US history. The number of private contractors in Iraq is now more than 100,000, nearly approaching the size of our military forces stationed there. Incoming Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman should subpoena CEOs of military corporations to answer tough questions. He could query Halliburton CEO David Lesar about his company’s waste of taxpayer money and equipment, overbilling and poor services. George David, CEO of United Technologies, should be asked why he is suing his Pentagon patrons to block the release of Black Hawk helicopter inspection reports. David Brooks, formerly of DHB In- dustries, can explain how many lives were endangered when the Pentagon was forced to recall 23,000 bulletproof vests of his company’s subsidiary–and whether he used ill-gotten profits to throw a $10 million, celebrity-studded party for his daughter. Members of military families who held bake sales to buy body armor for their children fighting in Iraq should also be asked to give testimony, alongside that of the profiteers.
3. Torture. Congress should investigate and expose the Bush Administration’s involvement in torture and the abhorrent practice of “extraordinary rendition,” the sending of detainees to countries known for practicing torture. A key witness could be Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen of Syrian descent who was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2002 and accused of having links to Al Qaeda. The United States “rendered” Arar to Syria, where he was held in a dungeon for ten months and tortured. Although the Canadian government completely exonerated Arar and the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned in disgrace, the Bush Administration has refused to clear Arar’s name and to explain why he was “rendered” to Syria. Congressional hearings should lay the foundation for laws banning engagement in torture–either by US personnel directly or through outsourcing via rendition.
4. Unequal Sacrifice and the War. Representative Charles Rangel, the incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, caused a ruckus when he proposed reinstituting the draft. But Rangel makes an important point that hearings could examine further the issue of unequal sacrifice and how our country’s privileged and political elites are AWOL from military service.
We already have a backdoor draft through the military’s use of multiple deployments and stop-loss policies, which have involuntarily retained some 85,000 troops beyond their expected or contractually agreed-upon term of service. Backdoor draft hearings should involve listening to families at National Guard and military bases around the country.
Unequal wartime sacrifices have taken their toll on active-duty military and recently returned veterans. There have been horrifying reports of traumatized soldiers being returned to combat zones. “We know so many stories of servicemen and -women with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome who should be getting the care they need, not facing redeployment,” said Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org). “One mother found her son sitting on his bed with a pistol in his mouth, contemplating suicide after receiving a letter putting him on a short list for recall to Iraq–where he had already served two deployments.”
Representative Bob Filner, the incoming chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has pledged to convene hearings about the unmet needs of recently returned veterans and their families. Filner should invite all other committee chairs and the media to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for the first hearing.
5. Runaway CEO Pay. Nothing symbolizes our polarizing “two Americas” more dramatically than the 411-to-1 ratio of average CEO compensation to average worker pay. The system is full of perverse incentives for CEOs to outsource workers, goose stock prices and collect more millions.
Representative Barney Frank, the incoming chair of the House Financial Services Committee, has already pledged to hold CEO pay hearings. But the discussion needs to go beyond disclosure reforms to underscore the profound power imbalance between imperial corporate managers and other stakeholders, including workers, shareholders and communities.
Hearings are an opportunity to expose and change the culture of greed. Witnesses should include the abundant number of Warren Buffett-like business leaders who believe that reining in CEO pay is good for business. April 2007 hearings should feature the freshly disclosed top earners from 2006 along with infamous CEO compensation consultants and Lee Raymond, retired CEO of ExxonMobil, who could be queried about his $400 million retirement package.
6. Wealth Inequality and the Estate Tax. The wealth gap has reached unprecedented levels–and the racial wealth divide persists despite expanding homeownership in communities of color. We should investigate the ways the estate tax, our nation’s only tax on inherited wealth, can help close this wealth divide.
After a decade of hysterical “death tax” propaganda, Congress should hold hearings to set the record straight about the benefits of taxing inherited wealth. Hearings could explore how the estate tax could better reduce the democracy-distorting concentrations of power and wealth–and whether revenue should be channeled to programs that broaden economic opportunity.
One witness could be Bill Gates Sr., who refers to the estate tax as an “opportunity recycling program” and urges that revenue from it be dedicated to a “GI Bill for the next generation.” After World War II our nation expanded opportunities through homeownership programs, small-business development and grants that enabled millions to get higher education. Many people of color, however, were excluded from those programs because of racial bias. Progressives should champion a bold and inclusive new wealth-broadening program that speaks to the aspirations of people left behind in our apartheid economy.
7. Concentration of Corporate Power. Twenty-five years after the Reagan Administration gutted our nation’s antitrust enforcement capacity, we have an unprecedented concentration of corporate power in virtually every sector of the economy, including banking, telecommunications, meatpacking and oil refining. Corporate consolidation corrupts the nation’s politics and marketplace, especially in the media industry. Hearings should not only investigate the impact of corporate consolidation on consumers but on all levels of the economy, civic life and culture. Mergers and consolidation in retail, pharmacy and food industries have extinguished local businesses and turned Main Streets into bland homogeneous strips.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees should launch robust antitrust hearings as a first step in exploring the impact of corporate concentration on our society. How did corporations gain so much power with so little social accountability? How have corporations undermined government oversight, taxation and regulation? Should we rewire the rules governing transnational corporations, including federal chartering and monitoring?
8. Oil Industry Influence. As part of the first 100 legislative hours, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged that the new Congress will vote on legislation to eliminate archaic subsidies for Big Oil and channel funds into alternative energy efforts. Hearings should go further and expose the corrupting influence of Big Oil lobbying on our foreign policy, energy policy and tax code. Why has our country remained addicted to oil? Why do we continue to give privileged status to the retrograde government of Saudi Arabia? Why will China surpass us in the next decade as a leader in green energy technologies? From oil industry involvement in Vice President Cheney’s secretive 2001 energy task force to the myriad provisions inserted into the tax code at the behest of the oil barons, the hardwired privileges of Big Oil are pervasive.
Hearings should expose the campaign contributions of Big Oil and their relation to policy outcomes, laying the groundwork for new and aggressive campaign finance and lobbying restrictions. Another worthy topic: the influence of Big Pharma on health policy and the credit-card industry on lending and bankruptcy laws.
9. Censorship of Climate Science. One of the clearest examples of the corrosive power of Big Oil can be seen in the debate over global warming. Here the stakes are no less than the future of the planet. Climate scientists believe we are at a tipping point–that we must take dramatic action in the next five years if we are to reverse unbridled fossil-fuel consumption. But instead of addressing the problem and leading the nation in adopting appropriate measures, the Bush Administration has been censoring and suppressing climate science, setting back our needed responses by a decade.
Hearings can make up for lost time by bringing forward leading climate experts and activists to suggest voluntary and legislative action. But we must also investigate the Administration’s unseemly efforts to censor or block sound scientific research. Let’s subpoena Philip Cooney, the former oil industry lobbyist who became chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and repeatedly edited and altered scientific climate reports to downplay links between greenhouse gases and global warming.
10. A Real Security Budget. Congress’s security budgeting process has little to do with making our country and planet more secure–thanks to military industry lobbyists, a Pentagon fetish for glitzy weapons and a Congress that views military pork as an employment program (which explains why more Homeland Security funds are spent per capita in Wyoming than in New York City). The common-sense wisdom, from the 911 Commission to peace groups, is that we spend way too much on weapons and not enough on nonmilitary security efforts, including diplomacy, effective international aid, peacekeeping and programs to prevent proliferation of nuclear materials. The Iraq War further drains resources from nonmilitary strategies, fostering a vicious cycle of violence.
In 2006 a prestigious group of security specialists issued a call for a “unified security budget,” proposing multibillion-dollar shifts in budget authority between military, homeland security and nonmilitary measures. But Congress is incapable of moving toward rational budget allocations because of committee budget fiefdoms. Progressive Democrats advocating a rational security and foreign policy will run smack into these structural impediments, including the feeding frenzy over the Pentagon’s daily allowance of about $1.1 billion.
Hearings may be helpful, but the entrenched corporate and national security state interests are so powerful that stronger medicine is required. Democrats should create a Select Committee on National Security and International Relations to look at the crosscutting requirements of the post-cold war world. This select committee should be empowered to recommend a reorganization of security-related budget writing that transcends current committee structures. Outside these hearings, peace and genuine security organizations should utilize their most creative educational tools, dramatizing the urgency of reorienting priorities.
Progressive lawmakers should launch several other committees over the next two years. Members of the Progressive Caucus are proposing a Select Committee on Poverty, Inequality and Opportunity in the House. A Select Committee on Federal Elections and Democracy could investigate the myriad problems with voting technology, voter suppression and the archaic Electoral College. A Select Committee on Infrastructure could investigate the condition of our bridges, highways and transportation systems, as well as our technology infrastructure needs.
Don’t just ask what your Congress can do for you. Progressive community activists and independent media need to maximize the synergy between hearings and organizing, bloggers and policy-makers. The hearings of the coming year will be what we make of them.