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US Congress Gets More Serious About Overseeing Government Spending - 2003-06-20

In the nearly two years since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to help strengthen the country's security. Lawmakers have also approved billions for initial costs of the war in Iraq, and reconstruction. In the process, they have been taking their job of overseeing how the government spends its money and how efficiently programs are implemented even more seriously.

As part of its role in legislating, Congress also controls the Federal government's purse strings. Numerous committees and subcommittees in the Senate and the House of Representatives oversee virtually everything on which public tax money is spent.

One of the better-known adages is: the administration proposes, but Congress disposes. This only partially describes the often contentious relationship between presidents and their legislative agendas on the one hand, and on the other, Congress and its constitutional obligation of "oversight."

From the highest officials of the Bush administration, to middle-ranking civil servants, being summoned to testify before Congress goes with the territory, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience.

You don't have to tell that to Paul Redmond. Assistant Secretary for Information Analysis in the new Department of Homeland Security. He suffered through one of the most humiliating [questioning] in recent memory.

Mr. Redmond has the difficult job of creating within the new department, which only began its work a few months ago, an information analysis capability. But lawmakers questioning him at a recent hearing were unhappy with progress made so far, and Mr. Redmond caught the [impact] of that dissatisfaction.

Shays: "Why should I feel comfortable today, Mr. Redmond, with your lack of a testimony, you're now saying maybe you did write it and now I'm not writing it, and the fact that you have not addressed any of the issues that we're concerned with. Why should I feel that we made a good decision, having this the way we did and having you there. Tell me why we should feel good that you're there?"
Redmond: "Well, I'm trying to establish, based on my experience in the intelligence community as an intelligence officer, a good analytical capability, a large analytical capability. Mr. Shays, I tell you, I'm trying to do my best at this point."
Shays: "Anything else?"
Redmond: "No sir."

After that harsh interrogation by Republican Christopher Shays, a Democrat, Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, tried to console Mr. Redmond, and in doing so summed up the essence of congressional oversight. "You have a tough job. But it's an important job that we can't fail at. Because it is every single person in this country who is depending on you. We're here to help you. Please understand. We're not your adversaries," he said. "We will only be your adversaries if you don't give us information to help you. So we can make good decisions. If we don't make good decisions, the American people pay a heavy price."

Because it is the largest cabinet-level department in the government, costing more than $70 billion a year, lawmakers pay special attention to homeland security.

In another hearing, Robert Bonner, commissioner of customs and border protection, also part of the Homeland Security Department, was confronted by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey about the safety of cargo flying on passenger aircraft:

Markey: "Would there be an actual physical screening of all the cargo that went on to that plane?"
Bonner: "I don't believe there is."
Markey: "You don't believe there is. Well, how would they detect the nuclear material that is mixed in with the boxes of computers that would be on that passenger plane then, Mr. Bonner?"

The highest officials also submit to the congressional microscope. Attorney General John Ashcroft is regularly taken to task (criticized) by lawmakers who say he is not responsive enough to congressional inquiries.

And in this exchange, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith was pressed by Congressman William Delahunt on Bush administration planning for Iraq.

Feith: "We are going to be working with Iraqis to get a government organized, and part of that is going to be organizing a constitution and, ah, a bill of rights."
Delahunt: "You're not responding to my question."
Feith: "You're welcome to answer your own questions! But if you want me to answer your question you have to give me a sentence or two."
Delahunt: "I'm asking you the question, and the question, I dare say, is susceptible to a yes or a no."
Feith: "I don't believe it is susceptible to yes or no."

With President Bush aggressively pressing Congress to approve as much of the rest of his domestic agenda as possible between now and next year's presidential election, one thing is certain. The questions from lawmakers will keep coming.