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All Oversight Is Local

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, announced Thursday that his 14th year in Congress would be his last. Davis was first elected in 1994, one of many Republicans who won on Newt Gingrich’s "Contract with America" platform that year. He may have been one of the lesser-known foot soldiers in that "Republican revolution," when the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, but his impact could prove more lasting than almost any other congressman.

Davis chaired the House Government Reform Committee from 2003-2007. This gave him the power to investigate and subpoena anything government-related. A lot was going on: faulty Iraq intelligence information, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, possibly industry-influenced energy energy and Medicare legislation. But the committee mostly chose to ignore these and other controversial issues. "Davis wasn’t interested in calling attention to the weaknesses of the GOP caucus or the Bush administration," said Craig Holman, the legislative director of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group.

Davis instead wielded his broad power to investigate an eclectic mix of subjects. His most high-profile action was holding a dramatic, ESPN-televised, hearing where the committee grilled baseball stars about steroids.

Otherwise, Davis focused about a quarter of his hearings on issues specific to Washington and his suburban constituency in Virgina’s Fairfax County. That total includes hearings where Davis urged the Pentagon to move more quickly in rewarding contracts to Fairfax County-based companies. The result of Davis’s tenure, from the perspective of many House Democrats and good government groups, is that Congress has fallen years behind in scrutinizing the Bush administration.

It didn’t have to be this way. On Davis’s retirement announcement, The Washington Post noted he lacked either the ideological stridency or confrontational demeanor of his Contract with America cohort. "You got to remember about that Congress is that they were bullies," Holman says. "Tom Delay was a bully. Davis wasn’t."

Davis spokesman Brian McNicoll said his boss worked hard to counter the Democrat’s contempt for the committee that had developed under his predecessor, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The oversight chairman has the power to issue subpoenas without consulting the full committee, and Burton served more than 1,000 subpoenas to Clinton administration officials between 1998 and 2002. "He is the most proud of the fact the committee functioned in a bipartisan fashion again," McNicoll says about his boss.

Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the current chairman of the House Oversight Committee, agrees that Democrats could work with Davis. "Tom Davis’s departure will leave a big hole in our committee and in Congress," said Waxman’s spokeswoman, Karen Lightfoot. "He is a tremendously effective member, a skilled consensus builder, and a great friend to many of us."

Yet just because they could work with Davis didn’t mean they often did. In November 2005, Waxman told the The Boston Globe, "When Clinton was in office there wasn’t an issue to small to hold a hearing on and embarrass the Democrats. Now there isn’t a scandal big enough to ignore." Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), said to The Washington Post a month later, "The House has absolutely zero oversight."

Democrats pointed out that while Burton issued 1,052 subpoenas for Clinton White House officials, Davis’s committee issued three for Bush White House officials. Their frustration led to a January 2006 report by Waxman’s minority staff entitled, "Congress’s Abdication of Oversight." It enumerated issues that Congress should be investigating but wasn’t — including the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence information on Iraq, the possible torture of detainees, rewarding no-bid contracts, the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity, warrantless eavesdropping and the influence of industry lobbyists in environmental, energy and health care law, The report concludes that Davis’s committee has created an "accountability gap" where allegations of serious misconduct remain mired in the allegations stage.

But Davis was undeterred by this report. In what turned out to be his final year as committee chair, he released a 104-page report called, "Oversight Matters!"

"True," Davis wrote in the report, "It’s not the politically charged, inquisitorial gotcha oversight that some might prefer. But effective, constructive oversight is much more a matter of due diligence and digging than depositions and sensational disclosures." So what was the committee diligently digging up?

Davis held 68 full committee hearings in his last two years as committee chair. Thirteen dealt with matters specific to Washington and its suburbs — from metrorail service to the District’s underfunded school system.

Other probes did examine under-exposed national problems, like fraud in the Interior Department and inconsistent administration of flu shots. Davis’s oversight on war contracting, especially the rewarding of contracts to technology companies, was another matter.

He did hold several hearings on government contracting, including some critical of no-bid contracts quickly rewarded after Hurricane Katrina. But with committee Democrats calling to slow down and reassess contractors, Davis took the opposite tack. Hearings like "Modernizing the Federal Acquisitions Workforce," concluded that the problem was that the Pentagon hadn’t been given clearance fast enough for contracts. "Davis kept trying to put in procurement legislation that accelerated the contracting process under the guise of reform," said Dina Rasor, founder of the Project of Government Oversight, a non-profit that investigates government misconduct.

For Davis, defense contracting may have been personal. Two months after Davis was named oversight chairman, his friend and former business partner Donald Upson became a consultant with ICG, a company that advises technology firms how to win government contracts. One of Upson’s first hires was Jeannemarie Devolities, who would soon marry Davis.

ICG would arrange for its clients to have dinner with Davis, to meet in his office and even testify before the committee on the value of private contractors. Upson once wrote a letter to the Pentagon on committee letterhead demanding that his client, Art Intel, Inc, a Reston, Va. satellite service company, keep a $2.2. billion government contract in danger of being terminated.

Davis has maintained he never wrote that letter, and said that Upson never abused their friendship to obtain favorable treatment for his clients. Indeed, Davis had other, more banal, motivations like the billions of dollars that contractors like Lockheed Martin, Haliburton and Booze Allen Hamilton pump into Fairfax Country’s economy. Since 2001, about 70 percent of commercial office leases in Northern Virginia have gone to defense contractors.

Nevertheless, Davis will leave Congress with his reputation intact as a cooperative moderate with some oversight accomplishments. It’s a matter of debate how much more Democrats and watchdog groups could have expected from him.

"It’s all relative," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America And How To Get It Back On Track." "The committee is doing a lot more investigations now, but they held legitimate hearings and asked tough questions under Davis."

"Davis was cordial," says Rasor, "but he just halted investigations if it meant looking at the White House and Dick Cheney."

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