09/10/2008 06:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Coming Joe and Sarah Show

As attacks and counterattacks by the Steve Schmidt-led McCain campaign team and the David Axelrod and David Plouffe-led Obama team gather strength, the conventional wisdom is that Joe Biden has an unassailable lead in experience and policy credentials over Sarah Palin. But is Joe Biden's chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee above reproach? Whispers among campaign aides suggest that there is meticulous analysis going on about precisely that.

The seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has brought to the fore the risks inherent in government-sponsored banking institutions with amorphous management and oversight structures that can cause calamitous bailout and other costs to the public. The abrupt halt to the series of hearings on multilateral bank corruption that then-Chairman Dick Lugar was holding when Senator Joe Biden took over, and the apparent unwillingness of Senator Biden to sign on to the bipartisan request from Senators Bayh (D-Indiana), Lugar (R-Indiana) and Leahy (D-Vermont) for a GAO study that I highlighted here and here and here are early alerts. That is because accountability and transparency are regarded as legendary conservative hallmarks to prevent waste and mismanagement (albeit themes that have been severely dented over several administrations) and those precisely are hard to accomplish amidst the multilateral privileges and immunities that were also highlighted here and here
and here.

The letter has not yet resulted in a GAO study although the GAO's media relations officer claims that a study may start sometime before the end of this year. Further, the terms of reference of the study are undefined, and unlikely to concentrate on core areas of the operations of the institutions precisely because of the multilateral privileges and immunities that can be used to thwart the GAO's inquiries.

Senator Bayh, likely a leading voice for reform in the coming Congress, himself highlighted waste, abuses and mismanagement here and here. Inside accounts point to hundreds of World Bank staffers earning more than the President of the US, in real terms, especially when including heavily subsidized private school education for children, home vacations on business class airfare, etc. Those details are generally kept confidential. But it is in the failure to anticipate and prevent crises that America's soft power is most lacking. And it is here that Senator Biden will likely be pressed.

It is now a year after the Senator Evan Bayh amendment that passed unanimously in the Senate was simply stripped out of the joint Senate-House bill by Senate staff (demonstrating the relative power of Senate staff as compared with a US Senator, and there are three Senators now aspiring to head the nation, with one Senator definitely going to be the next President, the first time since John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson about half a century ago. A prominent current Republican Senator described to me how, several times, his amendments that were approved unanimously in the Senate were unceremoniously dumped in the name of House-Senate conference.

There are bipartisan problems in oversight. In order for a potential Obama-Biden administration not to degenerate into something akin to some of the lacklustre administrations that we have seen in the past decades, it will take extraordinary leadership to make institutions into which the US has poured billions of dollars to function with foresight. And the levers a Vice President focused on foreign policy will have in this respect are, at best, dysfunctional. Indeed, sometimes one has to wonder if Senate staff are working in effect for the multilaterals they allegedly conduct oversight over or whether they are functionaries for the Congress. Some Senators and Representatives too of both parties, with key oversight responsibilities, are known flip-floppers. A conservative ex-senator, a personal friend of President Ronald Reagan, described to me how one Republican Senator who has a major oversight role today, in fact has always been highly reticent. Why, he asked, is that gentleman in such a key role year after year in the rough-and-tumble world of oversight over the world's trouble-spots?

Who then is supervising the Senators and staff conducting "oversight"? No one, it seems. Unlike the UK and many other countries with clear party structures, in the US every four years there is a new hierarchy -- now it is the FOO or Friends of Obama for the Democrats, when once it was the Friends of Bill (FOB), that would made the decisions. On the Republican side, it is even more unclear. That murkiness is ideal for institutions and organizations that seek large annual funding from the US Congress without the accompanying need to conform to best practices.

Because many multilaterals are headquartered in the US and receive the largest percentage of funding from the US, of any single country, and those can be central to achieving the soft power that is expected to prevent wars and enable development, ensuring their functioning with foresight becomes a priority. And that is why the Committee hearings were key. But by apparently halting or assenting to halt those hearings, has Chairman Biden thrown down the gauntlet to the RNC?

Republicans appear to start with the assumption that multilaterals are beyond repair/reform, and that military might and bilateral strong-arming are central to US foreign policy. The Democrats are therefore expected to provide an alternative pathway that emphasizes soft power, both direct through bilateral organizations like USAID and indirect through multilaterals like the World Bank where US is the top shareholder. Therefore, it bodes ill for that pathway because of the problems in oversight. Since Democrats have led both houses of Congress, there aren't that many excuses that can be trotted out. We will have to see how Senators Obama and Biden are pressed on those points.

Never before have two Vice-Presidential candidates been picked in large part for their ability (and sharp-tongued willingness) to attack the head of the opposite ticket. Senators Obama and McCain are keen to remain "presidential" and above the fray, so picked it is said, Biden and Palin to do most of the heavy lifting on attacks. Had executive experience been a priority, Senator Bayh the perennial finalist, may have been selected as he is a former two-term Governor. Opposing campaigns have claimed that Senators Obama, McCain and Biden have not served in executive capacity (although Senator Obama uses the careful management of his large presidential campaign as evidence of managerial skills, while Senator McCain points to his naval aviator days, and the revival, several times, of his then-slipping campaign), and Governor Palin has been in gubernatorial office for just two years. It is a fact that Senator McCain, like Senator Biden, has been a US Senator for decades. US Senators, for all their prestige, only manage a few dozen people, at best. That is why, for a Senator who is a committee/subcommittee chair or ranking member (and all three Senators on the tickets have such positions), holding hearings, asking detailed questions, seeking documentation and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, is the central, most important role beyond writing bills that often never become law. And that is also why the lists of hearings of each committee responsibility are now being gone over with a fine comb.

And, with the willingness to forcefully deliver telling blows to the opponent in glaring display, are we going to witness a no-holds-barred next two months of criticisms, counter-criticisms, media analysis and commentary? That would make for a scintillating end to a very lengthy and arduous campaign.