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"Democratic House will mean greater oversight, observers say"

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Democratic House will mean greater oversight, observers say 
Federal Times

A new Democratic majority in the House will mean greater oversight of
agencies, a priority on contracting investigations, and more attention to
the 9/11 Commission's recommendations to improve homeland security,
observers say.
After enduring 12 years of Republican control in the House, Democrats
recaptured the majority Nov. 7, easily winning the additional 15 seats they

Democrats also picked up seats in the Senate, where the balance of power was
undecided Wednesday morning - with Republicans and Democrats and
Democratic-leaning Independents even at 49 seats each and tight races in
Virginia and Montana still too close to call. 

"Certainly there will be more oversight activity," said James Horney, a
senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Congress in
recent years has been notably negligent." 

David Walker, comptroller general at the Government Accountability Office,

"I expect there will be more aggressive oversight as a result of last
night's election," he said. "At the same time, it's important that the
oversight is constructive. The point is not to just identify what's wrong
with government, but to point out what's right . . . identify agencies and
programs that are working well and share how they're doing this with other
parts of government." 

Both Walker and Horney said contracting is likely to top the list of issues
the new Congress looks into when it convenes in January. 

"Contracting challenges are well represented on GAO's high-risk list,"
Walker said. "Based on [Rep. Henry] Waxman's expressed interest, I wouldn't
be surprised if that's the area he plans to focus on first." 

Waxman, of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform
Committee, is expected to take over as chairman. His past investigations
have looked into contracting abuses and the politicization of science-based
agencies. He's also been an advocate for open government and whistleblower

Regarding homeland security, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the
ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, will likely take
over as chairman of that committee, replacing Republican Rep. Peter King of
New York. Thompson and other House Democrats have repeatedly urged Homeland
Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to: improve security on trains and other
forms of mass transit; better inspect cargo to be transported on passenger
airplanes; and increase grants for first responders and other programs. 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledged to enact all of the 9/11
Commission's recommendations within the first 100 hours of taking over as
speaker of the House. The commission in 2004 called for 41 changes in the
way the government fights terrorism. In December 2005 it issued a scathing
report on the government's progress that was littered with Cs, Ds and Fs. 
Commission recommendations include: 

   . Funding "in-line" airport baggage screening systems that use conveyer
belts to more efficiently check bags for explosives. Funding shortfalls mean
the Transportation Security Administration cannot pay for such systems at
all 451 airports nationwide. 

   . Order better information sharing between agencies. 

   . Push the FBI to focus more on counterterrorism. 

   . Declassify the intelligence budget. 

Pelosi also wants Homeland Security to inspect 100 percent of cargo bound
for the United States at its port of origin. 

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Nov. 8 that the Democrats have not
decided how they will enact those ideas. Hammill said that one possibility
is to pass a bill comparable to HR 5017, the "Ensuring Implementation of the
9/11 Commission Report Act," sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.,
and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. The bill sets deadlines for Homeland Security to
enact the commission's recommendations. 

But Seth Stodder, former policy director for Customs and Border Protection,
said Nov. 7 that the commission's recommendations were vague to begin with,
and it remains to be seen exactly how Democrats will make those ideas

"I don't see how you just say you will implement the recommendations,"
Stodder said. "You can order information sharing, but the devil is in the
details of management." 

And some of the ideas, such as the baggage screening system - will require
billions of dollars, Stodder said. Overhauling Washington's two airports
alone will cost more than $300 million, Metropolitan Washington Airports
Authority Chief Executive Officer James Bennett said in February. 

Democrats are also likely to call for more oversight of complicated Homeland
Security acquisition programs such as US-VISIT screening of foreign visitors
and SBInet, the border security inititiative, Stodder said. Katrina
reconstruction, reform of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and
Homeland Security's overall performance could be other areas of oversight
for the Democrats, Stodder said. 

In addition to Waxman and Thompson, other new House committee chairmen are
likely to include: 

   . Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., Appropriations. 

   . Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Energy and Commerce. 

   . Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Judiciary. 

   . Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., Transportation and Infrastructure. 

It is still unknown who will be the next Veterans Affairs Committee
chairman. Lane Evans of Illinois, the ranking Democrat, is retiring, and
Reps. Bob Filner of California and Mike Michaud of Maine are both competing
for control. 

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