Levin, Others Have Big Investigative Agendas: 02/05/07

By Jonathan Allen
CQ Today

The sight of Sen. Carl Levin behind a committee dais might not scare government and corporate witnesses, but it should.

The Michigan Democrat lacks the witness-bashing bombast of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or the central-casting courtliness of Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va. But few lawmakers use their question time as judiciously or as effectively as Levin, whose tenacious yet civil interrogating routinely elicits closely guarded information from even the most hostile witnesses.

“When he asks questions, I listen, because he usually cuts to the point,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., a former prosecutor who has worked with Levin on investigations.

Levin, who now runs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations as well as the Armed Services Committee, will be among the lawmakers to watch — and for witnesses to be wary of — as the new Democratic Congress launches a litany of investigations into government and private-sector practices. Hearings have already begun on the war and the intersection of politics and climate-change science.

The pace is sure to pick up after the Presidents Day recess later this month.

For example, Levin is expected to open hearings on the credit card industry later this month or early next month.

Shortly after the November elections, Levin laid out his plans for cracking down on the credit card industry. In a little-noticed speech to the liberal Center for American Progress, he assailed a variety of “egregious” industry practices involving fees and interest rates.

“The bottom line is that many credit card companies are using hidden fees, penalty interest charges and unfair practices to squeeze money out of working families,” Levin said. “American families simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer to decipher their credit card statements or fight for fair treatment, and they shouldn’t have to.”

Levin said he will use hearings to lay the groundwork for legislation. “He’s already been calling the industry in and grilling them,” said a lobbyist with clients who cross paths with Levin.

Levin plans to work in tandem with Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn.

Levin also plans to go after offshore tax havens and is mulling a probe of energy pricing.

Experienced Interrogator; those in his crosshairs have reason to worry.

It was Levin, as the ranking Democrat on Armed Services, who prompted then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki to predict in 2003 that it would take several hundred thousand American troops to secure Iraq.

After eight tries at a Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing later that year, Levin got Richard H. Smith Jr., KPMG’s vice chairman for tax services, to admit that he had encouraged the sale or acceptance of tax products to potential clients. Several KPMG executives, including Smith, were later indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud the IRS.

KPMG settled with the government, admitting that its tax-shelter scam generated $11 billion in sham losses, costing the government $2.5 billion.

The powerful PSI, as the investigations subcommittee is known, has subpoena power and virtually limitless jurisdiction. It also has10 investigators, five for the Democrats and five for the Republicans.

The Armed Services panel is the Senate’s primary tool for keeping tabs on the Iraq War, and its appetite for oversight of the war and defense contracting is increasingly vigorous and bipartisan.

McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, has shifted GOP investigative staff members from the Indian Affairs Committee, where they exposed the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, to Armed Services. Despite his support for the war and President Bush’s troop surge, McCain already has shown he plans to oversee the Pentagon aggressively.

Just last week, he was particularly hard on Gen. George Casey, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, when he testified at a hearing on his nomination to become Army chief of staff. McCain questioned Casey’s judgment in Iraq and declared that a “very heavy price in American blood and treasure” had been paid for “what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy.”

Asked about his priorities for oversight, McCain said his focus would be “acquisition reform, acquisition reform, acquisition reform.”

Government Purchasing Eyed

He won’t be the only one focusing on that issue. Several committees in both the House and Senate are likely to look at how the government buys goods and services, hands out contracts and oversees the execution of those contracts.

On the House side, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., already have their agendas in hand and their professional staffs in high gear.

Waxman has scheduled four hearings this week: two on Iraq contracting, one on Homeland Security contracting and one on prescription-drug pricing. His hearings will begin Tuesday with a look at Iraq reconstruction. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), is expected to be questioned on the CPA’s hiring practices and allegations that jobs were given out on the basis of political support rather than qualifications.

Large Staff

Waxman’s committee employs 80 staff aides — the most of any panel in the House — though that could be altered by a new committee funding resolution in March. The committee currently has 25 investigators, divided among an environmental office, a health office and an investigative office.

“Mr. Waxman is benefiting from the fact that Republicans beefed up that committee,” said John B. Larson, D-Conn., a former member of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over committee funding levels.

The staff of Dingell’s committee is much smaller than it once was, but he still has nearly 70 slots, according to figures provided by a GOP aide.

The committee, and the oversight subcommittee now chaired by fellow Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, have an ambitious agenda. Dingell listed Medicare and Medicaid fraud, drug safety and importation, food safety, spectrum allocation and superfund issues as areas of possible investigation. But, he said, “That doesn’t mean there are going to be hearings on all this.”

The workloads of the various House oversight committees also could be affected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s move to create a select panel on energy independence and climate change. Though the California Democrat says the panel will have no formal jurisdiction, the resources devoted to it — and not to other committees — will be a strong indication of its significance.