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Probe the Past To Protect the Future

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To build the public confidence needed for economic recovery, Congressional leaders need to be much tougher in overseeing such high-level decision-making as the $30 billion more in bailouts for American International Group (AIG) that the Obama administration announced on Monday.

After so much savings and job loss the public deserves far more assurance that investigations will get to the bottom of past and present decisions by Democrat and Republican alike. Vast questions remain about the last decade's federal deficits, even as the government fast-tracks $787 billion in new stimulus spending and proposes a $3.6 trillion annual federal budget that includes a $1.75 trillion deficit. Fears are growing that oversight won't be effective. Congressional committees must become better watchdogs, especially because of cutbacks by the traditional news media and foot-dragging by Executive Branch officials who fear accountability.

Wrong-doers and their apologists insist that the country should look forward for the betterment of all, and that any future problems will be dealt with fairly. Nonsense. As always, justice starts by a review of the evidence. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said. But pest control is useful too. Either way, strong measures are required to build public confidence for legitimate initiatives on such complex questions as which companies are "too big to fail," and which ones should pay the price for their terrible decisions.

Congress is taking well-publicized steps for increased oversight. Yet vigorous public pressure is required to ensure that their "investigations" are not merely for show. For example:

• Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) is holding a hearing today on "Truth" to examine Bush administration policies that led to torture, rendition and imprisonment without trial. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) is among those who fear that the Senate probe might foreclose further inquiry, including potential liability.

• House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Michigan) again subpoenaed former presidential advisor Karl Rove to respond Feb. 23 to allegations that the White House helped fire federal prosecutors for political reasons, including tolerating corrupt contracts and targeting such Democratic politicians as Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. But Rove again ignored the subpoena. In doing so, he continued his defiance enabled by the Bush Justice Department during the nearly two years since contracts attorney and Republican political operative Jill Simpson stepped forward with allegations against Rove and federal authorities prosecuting Siegelman.

• The House Energy and Commerce Committee concluded its year-long investigation of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin in December with a majority report entitled "Deception and Distrust," finding that he had abused his power. But the Committee could not persuade Martin or three of his top appointees (including his Chief of Staff and the FCC Inspector General) to appear before them to answer the allegations -- even though the FCC was created in the 1930s as an agency independent of the Executive Branch.

As usual, pressure for government contracts and favorable law is the basic problem. Back in the 1800s, the word "lobbyist" was coined to describe those operating from the lobby of the Willard Hotel near the White House. Today's Willard is replicated by thousands of other venues that breed the kind of scandals that have blighted every U.S. presidency of any duration, especially during war. During the Civil War, for example, a much-smaller Washington and its adjoining suburbs hosted between 7,500 and 15,000 prostitutes, with the heaviest concentrations near the Army encampment of Gen. Joseph Hooker between Congress and the White House.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1961 "Farewell Address to the Nation" against a vast "military-industrial complex" that threatened democracy. As the former World War II hero feared, those dangers now undermine not simply the contracting process, but also such institutional protections as Congress, the courts and news media.

For those searching for protections in the U.S. Constitution, the most explicit reside in Congress. But protection is dwindling when Executive Branch officials refuse to testify by citing "Executive Privilege," regarded as a Constitutional myth initiated in 1958 and bootstrapped since Watergate into a way to avoid questions.

As an advocate for business in Washington civic affairs for nearly two decades, I'm convinced that these problems require our full attention. Regarding the news media, their income stream is increasingly dependent on affiliated businesses and not on serving subscribers. The major TV networks, for instance, make virtually nothing from direct customer billings via cable and satellite, although many in the public naively assume that they're being served via a "marketplace of ideas." In fact, traditional and new media alike depend heavily on the goodwill of government officials, plus advertising. The financial reports of the Washington Post, for instance, show that since 2007 it has been making more than ten times its revenue from its education industry affiliates as from its Post subscriptions. Although new media are more entrepreneurial and increasingly broader-based in consumer appeal, many of their roots are in fairly recent federal Internet research and privatization policy -- and many of their futures depend on favorable regulation, merger approval and stimulus spending.

Congress and many other government officials face strong temptation to go through the motions of vigorous oversight, but to defer quietly at critical junctures to special interests that can help with campaign contributions, plus investment tips and jobs for friends. In terms of self-policing, forget about it. The U.S. Senate Ethics Committee recently reported for the second year in a row that it took no disciplinary action against anyone.

To illustrate how the House of Representatives sometimes works, let me reconstruct a conversation I had with Democratic U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro a decade ago when I sat next to her on a flight from Washington to her home district in New Haven, Connecticut. I was near the beginning of a long run as president of the Wireless Communications Association International, and took the opportunity to describe unrelated problems that I had observed in the justice system and relevant news media.

"You've got to do something!" I recall her responding.

"Me? I'm in business, and you're in Congress."

"Yes, but we can't do much."

At least she was trying, unlike many who quickly disintegrate from their Mr. Smith Goes to Washington idealism. But the upshot is that we all passed the buck for years in effect, and it's now a fine mess that we're in. The three examples of Congressional investigations cited above each illustrate important problems.

Regarding today's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on U.S. government-run torture, should the goal of such a review simply be fact-finding and promises not to torture others? We had that during the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s. And if the Senate process isn't done absolutely correctly, clever defense attorneys are adept at using a legislative investigation and any legal slip-ups as technicalities to foreclose more serious liability down the road.

In the Siegelman case, Alabama's leading Democrat was convicted in 2006 of re-appointing an industry executive to a state advisory board in return for $500,000 spent for a state ballot referendum campaign for more school spending. Siegelman was promptly shackled after sentencing, then shipped to prison to begin a seven-year sentence. Supposedly, this helps ensure good government. But if Siegelman were framed to get him out of the way, what's the public interest in that? Perhaps even more important, why can't Congress get answers so long after the underlying events that go back to the late 1990s?

In case you're wondering how you'll know what's going on, consider the results of the year-long House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation of abuse of power allegations against the Bush Administration's Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin. The still-boyish looking Martin might have seemed overmatched in defying longtime Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Michigan), now the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history after succeeding his father in 1955. The white-haired, cane-carrying, tough-talking Dingell ostensibly wielded vast oversight power over the FCC. But his power base was declining, in part because of his strong support for the embattled U.S. auto industry.

Martin, by contrast, could rely upon his tight bonds with the White House and his confidence that most in the financially stricken news media had other priorities than scrutinizing someone with so much power over their companies. To be sure, there were a few critics such as the iconoclastic conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, whose staff worried about arbitrary interventions disrupting the flow of free markets. Martin also had to endure some adverse headlines from the Commerce Committee report in December. But Martin, as a former member of Independent Prosecutor Ken Starr's team pursuing President Bill Clinton, knew better than most the dangers of answering tough questions under oath. So, he issued his statements from afar, including a summary for posterity on the FCC website summarizing his accomplishments: "Driving Investment and Innovation While Protecting Consumers."

No small-timer, Martin's previous job before becoming an FCC Commissioner had been leading the 2000 Bush-Cheney Florida vote recount that enabled the Bush Presidency. Martin's wife Cathie Martin then went to work in the Bush Administration as communications director for Karl Rove before promotion to the same post for Vice President Dick Cheney. In other words, her job was to influence the communications industry, and her husband's was to regulate it. Rather convenient, yes?

If you already knew these things, I'll plead guilty right now to wasting your valuable time. But if not, let's consider what's necessary to make our government the public's servant instead of its master. One key test for the Obama administration will be whether the land-rush for stimulus spending dollars proceeds in a transparent and otherwise effective manner, or whether it becomes a black box of unknowable criteria, as sometimes seems the case in such financial bailouts as that for the insurer AIG. Another promising sign would be whether Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder enforces Congressional subpoenas, and otherwise takes the steps to foster a non-political and transparent justice system. Or will the Obama administration itself try to benefit from expanding Executive Privilege, and otherwise limit effective oversight by Congress?

In shoring up the public will to dig deep, we can learn from former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. He was steeled as a World War II correspondent, and then recognized in1970s public opinion surveys as, "The most trusted man in America." This is what he said in 2002 looking back at all that he'd seen: "Not only do we have a right to know, we have a duty to know what our Government is doing in our name."

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