Save perhaps, for his mustache, there's nothing about Henry Waxman that would lead anyone to mistake him for Joseph Stalin. Stalin's rise to general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party included stints as a Bolshevik bank robber and a commissar in the Red Army; Waxman was elected to Congress after representing an affluent West Los Angeles district in the California State Assembly. Stalin's policy of forced collectivization resulted in a famine that killed six million Ukrainians; the only person Waxman has ever starved is himself — and then only on Yom Kippur. And, while Stalin subjected his opponents to hard labor, torture, and frequently death in the gulag, the worst thing Waxman has ever inflicted on his foes is a few hours of questioning in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which he chairs.
And yet, to hear Republicans tell it, Waxman might as well be nicknamed Henry the Dread. The reason for the Stalin analogies is that Democratic committee chairs have authorized subpoenas for top White House and Justice Department officials to testify at hearings about the U.S. attorney purge and other myriad Bush administration scandals — hearings that President Bush himself has disparaged as "show trials."
Now, it's possible that Bush slept through his Soviet history lessons, but show trials, of course, are not really trials at all — their verdicts having been predetermined with the defendants' "confessions" extracted through torture. Contrast that with what Democrats hope to achieve by subpoenaing administration officials. Democrats don't know whether Karl Rove had a hand in the firings of U.S. attorneys, although there's enough circumstantial evidence to suspect that he did. The fact that Democrats want him to testify about the matter in public — as opposed to being "interviewed" behind closed doors, not under oath, and with no transcript, as the Bush administration has offered — does not mean that Democrats want to conduct a show trial. Far from it. They simply want to know what Rove did or did not do — and they are more likely to get the straight story if Rove is under oath and there's an actual written record of his answers. Whatever Rove says, his answers will not have been coerced through torture. And, even if it turns out that Rove did have a hand in the U.S. attorney firings, the worst possible outcome for him won't include exile in Mexico and assassination with an ice pick. It's doubtful he'd even be frog marched out of the White House.
Of course, it's hardly a surprise that Bush would consider the prospect of oversight akin to Stalinism. (If only the Supreme Soviet had tried to hold Stalin accountable for his abuses of power!) But Bush is not alone in looking askance at Democrats' willingness to exercise oversight authority. Much of the pundit class thinks it's a bad idea, too. As Time magazine editor Richard Stengel recently remarked: "I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove, because it is so bad for them. Because it shows business as usual, tit for tat, vengeance."
But Congress exercising its oversight authority is anything but business as usual. For most of his six-plus years in the White House, President Bush has enjoyed Republican majorities that have conducted virtually no oversight of his administration. The fallout from this lack of oversight can be seen in nearly every Bush administration failure and scandal — from the Iraq war to warrantless wiretapping to the various entanglements between administration officials and Jack Abramoff. Now, with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, those days are coming to an end. That doesn't mean that congressional Democrats are engaging in the same excesses that Republicans were guilty of during the Clinton administration. For instance, Waxman — who occupies the same chair that Indiana Republican Dan Burton used in the 1990s to investigate his wild conspiracy theories about Vince Foster's death — has demonstrated admirable restraint. His investigations of the war in Iraq have been limited to narrow — and important — topics like President Bush's incorrect prewar claim that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger and ongoing corruption in the Iraqi oil ministry. His domestic investigations have focused on matters like political abuses at the General Services Administration. He has yet to shoot a pumpkin in his backyard.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, to borrow a phrase, but congressional Democrats would be derelict if they did not vigorously pursue apparent abuses of power by the Bush administration. The U.S. attorney scandal is a good place to start. As we have previously noted, it's likely that the administration violated no laws when it fired the eight U.S. attorneys. But it did violate the important norm of presidents not firing prosecutors they appointed in the middle of their terms — which ensured that prosecutors would deploy the law free of partisan considerations. The administration should be held accountable for violating this norm. And Congress, by shining light on this violation, would be doing just that. In the process, it would be standing for an important norm in its own right: the norm of oversight. There's nothing showy about that.
By the editors of The New Republic
If you like this article, go to www.tnr.com, which breaks down today's top stories and offers nearly 100 years of news, opinion, and analysis