Monday, April 17, 2006

Congress: Stirring At Last?

Washington wags would have it that this ought to be a banner year for Congress. With only 97 days on the legislative calendar – 23 days longer than one-fourth of the calendar year as we know and love it – surely the amount of harm that can be inflicted on the body politic is minimal.

Of course, not all of the other three-fourths of the year – minus those 23 days (which is about an ordinary work month not counting weekends) – is spent on junkets or vacationing. Members of Congress, after all, have constituent visits in their district and states and have to do fund-raising on an almost daily basis.

But Congress must be in session to legislate. So when a major piece of proposed legislation fails to pass both chambers – the recent immigration “reform” bill in the Senate is a case in point – this not only captures the headlines, it upsets the planning for considering other legislation.

It also conceals stirrings, however belated, of congressional oversight, something missing for years. In the House, a Democratic bill calling for the creation of a special Iraq-Afghanistan contracting oversight board picked up two new Republican co-sponsors in early April. They join Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA), an original sponsor with John Tierney (D-MA) for a total of 35 co-sponsors. And while more Members would be needed to ensure committee consideration, let alone consideration by the full House, there may be more co-sponsors when Congress returns from its Easter break and a growing body of constituents who question what the U.S. is getting in return for the $1.9 billion (or more) that goes out each week to contractors operating in or in support of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The proposed select committee, should it materialize, would be modeled after the seven-year World War II era “Truman Committee” that went after waste, fraud, and abuse in that era’s war contracting. Historians say that the Truman panel documented $15 billion in abuses – in fiscal year 2000 dollars, that comes to $179 billion. In just Defense Department-controlled reconstruction spending in Iraq, the Defense Department’s inspector general says the Pentagon cannot document how it spent $8.8 billion.

Another panel looking at Iraq held its first meeting April 12. Unlike the official House panel, this bi-partisan Iraq Study Group of ten principal members grew from a proposal by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) for an independent look by a non-governmental group of experts at Iraq’s military, economic, political, and strategic condition. Sponsored by four prominent research and policy analysis organizations, the so-called “Fresh Eyes on the Target” panel will try to produce an evaluation of where Iraq is now, where it needs to get to so U.S. troops can leave, and suggest how this can be done. Sub-panel working groups will take on each aspect of the enquiry, and these four groups will be augmented by a fifth panel of retired generals and an admiral. The study group is to complete its work within a year.

So while Congress may look at history – contracting history – the Study Group will concentrate more on the future and how to get there. I’m not sure who has the easier task.

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