WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts lawmakers are set to launch a blizzard of investigations in the new Congress, probing issues such as wartime contracting, post-Katrina housing assistance, and the Bush administration's relationship with Cuba and other countries in Latin America.
In what could be closely watched proceedings, two members of the Massachusetts delegation -- representatives William D. Delahunt of Quincy and Martin T. Meehan of Lowell -- are planning joint committee hearings to examine the administration's Iraq war policies, particularly the reasons for the military's lagging efforts to train Iraqi troops. Delahunt is in line to become chairman of the House International Relations Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and Meehan will take over the same subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee.
We could be the Bush administration's worst nightmare come to pass, in terms of the questions we'll be able to ask from positions of power. There are a lot of secrets that have been hidden from the American people in terms of the way business has been done for the past six years.
US Rep Edward J. Markey
Armed with the power to force sworn testimony for the first time after 12 years in the minority in Congress, members of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation are positioned to play major roles in investigating policies and actions that cut across the federal government and the business community.
"We could be the Bush administration's worst nightmare come to pass, in terms of the questions we'll be able to ask from positions of power," said Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation. "There are a lot of secrets that have been hidden from the American people in terms of the way business has been done for the past six years."
Democrats in general say that when they become the majority party in Congress, they intend to shine a spotlight on administration policies and management, where the Republican power structure has done little to check the authority of the president. With the GOP powerless to stop them, Democrats say, they hope their oversight will protect taxpayer dollars and shape the political agenda going into the 2008 presidential election.
The hearings and investigations planned by Massachusetts' members of Congress will complement and, in some cases, compete with a dizzying array of other investigations Democrats are expected to launch early next year, and Senate committees are expected to be just as active as those in the House.
In addition to Delahunt and Meehan, Massachusetts will have House members in high-ranking posts on several major investigatory committees.
Representative Barney Frank of Newton will become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which has sweeping authority over the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commissions, and the nation's housing policies. Frank has outlined an agenda that includes a year long examination on the issue of wage inequality in the United States.
He is also planning hearings in late January or early February on consumer protections in federal banking laws, as well as the federal government's efforts to rebuild housing destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.
"A lot of low-income housing was destroyed, and they've done virtually nothing to replace it," Frank said. "The federal government's role in this has been a disaster."
Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston serves on the Government Reform Committee, which will look at the role that industry groups played in shaping the closed-door energy task force convened by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. Representative Richard E. Neal of Springfield, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, wants hearings on the impact of President Bush's tax cuts on the federal budget deficit, given the administration's promise that the tax cuts wouldn't throw the budget out of balance.
The cumulative effect of the ramped-up congressional scrutiny will probably lead Republicans to accuse Democrats of political payback after six years of one-party rule in Washington, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. But after years in which the Bush administration has faced virtually no scrutiny from a Republican-controlled Congress, troves of embarrassing revelations about Republicans during their six years in power seem destined to pour from a Democratic House and Senate, he said.
"The Republicans will claim that the Democrats are obsessed with publicity-oriented witch hunts, but the Republicans are more vulnerable than the Democrats," Berry said. "A lot of these hearings are going to be compelling, and are going to produce storylines that readers and viewers are going to be very interested in."
The Iraq war is likely to be a particularly popular subject of inquiry, with a range of committees set to examine pre war intelligence, troop readiness, and the administration's plans moving forward. Democratic House members say they expect House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi's office to help streamline the various investigations and set a manageable timeline for higher-profile inquiries when the next legislative session begins next month.
In the meantime, Meehan has outlined a full agenda for his Armed Services subcommittee on oversight, which Republicans disbanded in 1995 but which Democrats will reconstitute next year. He is hiring five investigators -- including specialists in weapons systems and Pentagon budgeting -- and promises to look into equipment shortages among soldiers in Iraq, military recruiting and retention, and corruption allegations involving Defense contractors operating in Iraq.
"For the past six years, Congress has rolled over and played dead while the president has done anything he wanted to, particularly in the war in Iraq," Meehan said.
After Republicans made it primarily a mechanism to criticize the United Nations, Delahunt said, he plans to broaden his International Relations subcommittee on oversight. He wants to examine government-funded broadcasts that reach Cuba; the international component of the president's grant programs for faith-based health organizations; and the impact in Latin America of the administration's push to sign "bilateral immunity agreements" to shield US citizens from being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.
"Does this work to our benefit? We're losing influence in Latin America," Delahunt said.
© 2006 The Boston Globe