What the Dems Would Do

John Dingell likes to reminisce about the days when Democrats ruled Capitol Hill. Back in the 1980s and early '90s, the irascible Michigan congressman was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most influential in the Capitol. Dingell oversaw huge swaths of the U.S. economy, as well as the environment and food and drug laws. At times the chairman seemed more prosecutor than politician. He used his gavel to call dozens of hearings. He'd subpoena high government officials--at the time, that often meant Republicans who worked for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush--and grill them for hours under the hot television lights. Dingell always insisted that witnesses testify under oath, meaning anything less than honest answers could be met with perjury charges. It was Dingell's oversight subcommittee that uncovered the Pentagon's $600 toilet seats and exposed corruption in government agencies. "We emptied the top leadership of the EPA," Dingell recalls with obvious satisfaction. "We put a large number of FDA people in jail."

That was before Dingell was forced to surrender his gavel when the GOP won the House in 1994. If Democrats take it back next month, the party will once again be in charge of all the committees. Dingell--now 80 years old and more ornery than ever--is all but certain to return to his old job. After 12 long, frustrating years as the panel's ranking minority member, a title that left him little more than the power to complain, nothing animates Dingell more than the thought of making up for lost time.

Dingell is careful to say he is not out to get George W. Bush, or the Republicans, and insists he will extend his hand to his GOP colleagues and conduct "oversight thoughtfully and responsibly." He says "there's no list" of things he wants to investigate. But in the next breath, he quickly ticks off a list of things he wants to investigate: The Bush administration's handling of port security and the threat of nuclear smuggling; computer privacy; climate change; concentration of media ownership; the new Medicare Part D program, which he calls a "massive scandal," and the secret meetings of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. "This is a hardheaded administration," Dingell says. "So we'll probably have lots of hearings."

The House of Representatives is full of John Dingell Democrats--exiled committee chairmen awaiting the day they can reclaim the center chair on the dais. All carry lists--if only in their heads--of issues and outrages they believe Republicans have failed to probe because such questions would be politically embarrassing to the president. Henry Waxman of California is another Democratic old-timer whose ire never dims. A tireless investigator, he's in line to head the Government Reform Committee, and plans to take aim at Halliburton and alleged rip-offs and contract abuse in Iraq. Then there's Charles Rangel, the New York congressman who's never met a cable show he didn't like. He is set to take over the Ways and Means Committee, and wants to take a hard look at the Bush tax cuts. John Conyers of Michigan has waited for years to head the Judiciary Committee. He's likely to convene hearings on the Patriot Act and domestic wiretapping. In the past, he has suggested the possibility of impeachment hearings for President Bush. "When the Clinton administration was in office, there was no accusation too small for the Republicans to rush out the subpoenas," Waxman says. "When Bush became president, there wasn't a scandal big enough for them to ignore."

Frothy rhetoric like that may appeal to those Democrats who relish the thought of spending the next two years in a state of C-Span-induced euphoria. But much as Democrats might like to see a thousand hearings bloom, there is one thing standing in their way: the Democratic leader herself. Nancy Pelosi, who would presumably become Speaker if the party wins the House, has made it clear that she does not want to turn the Capitol into a courthouse. There will be hearings, and plenty of them, but according to a top Democratic staff member familiar with Pelosi's plans--who, like all aides, wouldn't be named talking about strategy--the would-be speaker intends to keep tight control. The aide says Democratic leaders will have veto power over committee probes--something that in the past was the domain of the committee chairmen themselves.

Pelosi is concerned that too many flying subpoenas would make her party appear petty and revenge-hungry, obsessed with blaming Bush. She does not want anything to interfere with her most important goal: making the Democrats look like leaders instead of obstructionists.

Pelosi knows she probably won't have much success passing laws, not with Bush in the White House and a Senate that may well remain under Republican control. But in a way, that's the point: Pelosi's true focus for the next two years will be to position the Democrats for the 2008 presidential race. (She'll have help from rising star Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the hard-edged former Bill Clinton aide who now runs the House Democrats' campaign committee.)

The idea is to bring popular bills that the GOP has opposed to the floor of the House--a minimum-wage hike, prescription-drug reform--and dare Republicans to vote against them. It's part of a larger package the Dems are billing as Six for '06, their version of the "Contract With America," which the GOP used to win in '94. Demo-crats plan to enact the 9/11 Commission recommendations and screen all containers at U.S. ports, put more money into counterterror operations and increase benefits for veterans. At home, they say they'll vote for tax deductions for college tuition and cut student-loan rates while raising taxes on big oil companies and corporations that move overseas. They say they'll also put a popular stem-cell-research bill up for a vote.

Democratic leaders are largely sticking with domestic issues in part because they have yet to come up with a coherent plan for the biggest problem of all: articulating a clear way out of Iraq. On the campaign trail, Democrats have been content to bash Republican failures and say they'd do better. The Democrats' official line is to promise a "new direction," and to urge, vaguely, "redeployment." If they win, they'll be forced to say what, if anything, that means.

Pelosi began preparing for power early. Over the summer, when polls started tilting toward the Democrats, Pelosi made her first moves to get the control of the chairmen-in-waiting. She assigned 40 members the job of studying the Democratic House rules and let it be known that she might not always follow the tradition of awarding chairmanships based on seniority. It was a clear warning not to cross her. In July, when she noticed few members were bothering to show up for party caucus meetings, Pelosi quietly leaked another possible rule change: attendance at the meetings would be taken into account in her committee selections. The same went for fund-raising. Members who weren't writing checks to support Democratic candidates might hurt their chances of rising in the leadership.

Once she'd gotten their attention, Pelosi met privately with several senior House members and told them they would get their committees. But she wanted it understood that she was running the place. Pelosi was especially firm with Conyers. She told him she didn't want any "out-of-control investigations," a senior House aide says; not another word about impeachment, she warned. "The impeachment talk gave the other side exactly what they wanted, which was an opening to talk about 'those liberal Democrats'," says the senior House aide. "It couldn't keep happening. We were writing their campaign ads for them."

So far, Pelosi's strategy appears to be working. The closest Conyers now gets to slamming Bush is his promise to conduct "robust oversight" of the administration. But Pelosi's authority wouldn't be put to a meaningful test until after the election, once chairmen assume control of their new committees and are less susceptible to threats and pressure from the top. If an errant chairman disobeys Pelosi and goes off message--or if preapproved hearings just so happen to take a detour and end up as bitter Bush-flogging sessions--it won't be easy to pry him from his chair, if it were possible at all.

The Republicans are playing up just that scenario. In campaign speeches, GOP heavies have taken to spooking voters with a picture of liberals gone wild. At a Kansas fund-raiser, Dick Cheney conducted a roll call, naming Conyers, Waxman and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, the outspoken liberal who stands to head the Financial Services Committee. As if Cheney's point weren't clear enough, he drove home the message: "I don't need to tell you what kind of legislation would come to us by way of committee chairmen like [them]," he said. On Nov. 7, Americans will decide which scares them more: the message, or the messengers.