“There has been literally no oversight in the last six years,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Muckraker yesterday. “It’s been nothing more than Kabuki theater.”

That’s why Dingell says he’s gearing up to hold oversight hearings investigating the Bush administration’s energy and environmental policies, as are his Democratic colleagues Barbara Boxer (Calif.), soon-to-be-chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Henry Waxman (Calif.), incoming chair of the House Government Reform Committee, which conducts oversight of the U.S. EPA.

Boxer has been anxiously awaiting such hearings for years. As she said at a 2004 Earth Day event, “Since his first day in office, President Bush has worked to roll back more than 350 laws and regulations that protect our public health and the environment. Any one of these rollbacks should be cause for a hearing in the Congress, should be a cause for consternation among the people. And I have to tell you, this has got to stop.”*

Climate change, Superfund cleanups, clean-air and drinking-water protections, and leaking underground storage tanks are potential topics for such hearings, Dingell told Muckraker. Last month, Dingell also mentioned oil subsidies and Dick Cheney’s clandestine energy task force as areas worthy of investigation.

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“Oversight is a crucial part of the checks and balances of the federal system,” said Dingell, who earned a reputation for investigative zeal when he chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995. “It’s what keeps Congress and the executive branch honest.” Dingell argues that oversight and policymaking are inextricably entwined: “I don’t know where one begins and the other ends.”

Beyond oversight, Dingell is planning legislative hearings as well, to gather information from experts on key issues that will come before his committee. Democrats need to build a new record of data and opinions that they can reference when drawing up and advocating bills, said Dingell. “We need to gather the facts, and do so in a balanced way. This system of ours is supposed to be informed from every perspective.” A balanced spectrum of views was missing from many hearings held in recent years by Republicans, he contended — perhaps alluding to one-sided hearings on the National Environmental Policy Act put together by House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), or a climate-change hearing organized by Senate Environment Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) at which conservative novelist Michael Crichton gave “expert” testimony.

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Still, Dingell said Democrats need to be prudent in choosing which hearings to pursue. He noted that in the past, oversight hearings had been used as “witch hunts, conducted in malevolent and spiteful ways” — most notoriously by Joseph McCarthy. That, he said, is unconscionable: “Above all, hearings must be fair, well-prepared, and responsible.”

Boxer sounded a similar note of restraint recently when asked by NPR’s Living on Earth about her plans to hold climate-change hearings: “Right now what I want to do is be positive and move forward. … And to the extent that oversight helps me get things done for the people, we will use it. But clearly if we can do this in a bipartisan way, the people will be well served.”

Do You Hearing What I Hearing?

Democrats will have to play a delicate balancing act as they decide how much time to spend on fact-finding exercises and investigations into the past, and how much to spend on drafting and promoting new legislation. Hearings will consume congressional resources at a time when the nation faces a number of urgent crises that need to be dealt with — a botched war in Iraq, a crushing budget deficit, a failed health-care system, escalating climate chaos.

Said National Environmental Trust VP Kevin Curtis, “The new leadership can undoubtedly use hearings to its advantage, and my bet is they will. The danger is that if they have nothing to show for themselves but a long list of hearings come 2009, they will have squandered opportunities to make legislative progress.”

Dan Becker, director of Sierra Club’s global-warming program, has a different view. “Frankly, I don’t think there is the potential to pass major environmental policies in the next two years — they will be either filibustered or stopped by veto,” he said. “Which means the role of this Congress is going to be to set the table for the next Congress and the next president.” Hearings that expose the corruption behind the Bush environmental record and educate the public about potential solutions, he said, could pave the way for legislative wins in 2009 and beyond.

Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees little danger and lots of promise in the prospect of congressional hearings — oversight hearings in particular. “These investigative hearings are going to be fun,” she told Muckraker. “We’ve been waiting for them for many, many years.” This week, at the request of incoming majority leaders, she’s been drawing up a wish list of oversight hearings she’d like to see. “It’s high time that Congress flexes its oversight muscle,” Wayland said. “That’s the only way to reestablish a respect for the legislative branch, which the White House has gotten into the habit of treating as merely a rubber stamp.”

Oversight hearings, in addition to exposing negligence or wrongdoing, can have immediate, practical effects such as prompting agencies to implement rules or enforce laws. In fact, according to Wayland, the mere threat of such hearings seems to be having an impact already. “I’ve heard any number of congressional staffers say that agency officials who would once ignore their calls are suddenly acting responsive and agreeable,” she said.

For her part, Wayland isn’t worried that hearings will get in the way of legislative progress. “Dems are very much aware of wanting to make sure they don’t sound shrill,” she said. “They want to present, above all, a positive agenda.”

Dingell — a moderate with many friends across the aisle — insists that he does indeed want to keep hearings constructive. He said a wise mentor once told him that when holding hearings, “first you must be fair, second you must appear fair.” Dingell now keeps a picture of Joseph McCarthy on his wall to remind him what not to do.

*[Correction, 08 Dec 2006: This article originally stated that Boxer’s comments were made at a recent press conference. In fact, they were made at an Earth Day 2004 event.]