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(Photo of Rep. Dan Burton via Salon.)

The next time some reporter unquestioningly writes up some dreck that spews forth from the mouth of Mark Corallo or Barbara Comstock — I want you to write that reporter with two words:  Dan Burton.  Because both Comstock and Corallo learned their stock in trade of smarm and smear and manipulative slimeball tactics at the knee of Rep. Burton back in the good old days of Republican payback against the Clintons. 

Each and every time I pick up an article on potential Democratic Congressional oversight and I read some form of whining from a Republican about how mean the Dems will be in demanding some form of accountability or responsibility for the mess that the Bush Administration and the rubber stamp Republican Congress have made of this nation of ours, I think to myself:  Dan Burton.

As chairman of the House Government and Reform Committee, Burton turned his panel into a one-stop shop for Clinton haters, mounting investigation after investigation at taxpayer expense. He may be best known for shooting at a "headlike thing" in his backyard in order to prove a crackpot theory that White House aide Vince Foster was murdered. In April 1998, Burton railed against Clinton to the Indianapolis Star: "If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he'd [Clinton] be gone. This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him."

And he went after Clinton with a vengeance, hammering away at charges of campaign finance violations and other alleged ethical abuses. He once wrote a letter to ask the president whether taxpayer money was being used to underwrite the expense of mailings for a fan club for first feline Socks. He released transcripts of the prison conversations of former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell but edited them to remove comments that seemed to exonerate Hillary Rodham Clinton — an act that earned him condemnation from Congress. He was later forced to apologize on the House floor….

This Salon article goes on to detail some personal issues that Burton had of his own, and of the genesis of the ethics armistice that these problems helped to broker between Hastert and Gephardt back in the day. But it is Burton's penchant for investigative zeal about things as unimportant as the Socks Fan Club fan mail postage that truly ought to give reporters a bit of pause — and some much needed perspective — when Republicans whine and try to cry "wolf" over legitimate oversight that Democrats ought to begin in January.

 To wit:

In the fall of 1994, Gingrich could barely contain his excitement about the prospects of a GOP Congress. In remarks to a group of lobbyists (later leaked), Gingrich crowed that "Washington just can't imagine a world in which Republicans would have subpoena power." True to Gingrich's word, the following year the GOP in effect laid a siege-by-subpoena upon the White House. But Gingrich's world wasn't so wonderful: Republicans throughout Congress pushed anti-Clinton charges flimsy enough to embarrass a Soviet-bloc secret police agent. In the Senate, Al D'Amato conducted dozens of Whitewater hearings that flopped badly and contributed to his 1998 defeat by Chuck Schumer.

Most memorable, however, was the famously unhinged chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Indiana Republican Dan Burton. During his tenure, Burton issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to 141 different Clintonites. His inquiries included ten days of hearings on whether the White House used its Christmas card list for political purposes. In one case, Burton's investigators managed to subpoena the wrong man. His low point came in 1998, when Burton released misleadingly edited transcripts of secretly recorded phone conversations conducted in prison by former Clinton associate Webb Hubbell. Burton apologized, and his notorious lead investigator, David Bossie, resigned; but, by then, fellow Republicans were furious over the damage Burton had done to his own party. "There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds," one Republican fumed to The Washington Post.

Burton wasn't alone. In 1997, Republican Representative Gerald Solomon of New York notified the FBI that Democratic National Committee fund-raiser John Huang may have sold U.S. secrets to the Chinese, prompting an FBI investigation and wide press coverage. Two years later, FBI files released to Congress showed that Solomon's charge had been based on a cocktail-party conversation with a Senate staffer who claimed to have heard the scoop from an unnamed employee of the Commerce Department, where Huang had worked. Solomon couldn't remember his source's name–only that he was "a male in his thirties or early forties, approximately five feet ten inches tall with brownish hair." (That narrowed things down to roughly half the federal government's employees.) As Henry Waxman, currently the ranking Democrat on the House Reform Committee, put it at an American University forum last month, "That's the climate we were in then: Even cocktail-party gossip could launch major congressional and criminal investigations of the Democratic Clinton administration."

As Karen Tumulty of Time recently pointed out, Rep. Henry Waxman puts things into perspective rather nicely in terms of what is and is not important to the Republican party in terms of oversight:

Then Chairman Dan Burton–who famously re-enacted the suicide of Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster by shooting at what he called a "head-like thing" (later widely reported to be a melon) in his backyard–issued 1,089 such unilateral subpoenas in six years. Since a Republican entered the White House, the G.O.P. Congress has been far less enthusiastic in its oversight. Waxman likes to point out that the House took 140 hours of sworn testimony to get to the bottom of whether Clinton had misused the White House Christmas-card list for political purposes, but only 12 hours on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

But, thankfully, Waxman is no Dan Burton. And neither, it seems, are any of the other grown-up Democrats who will be taking the reins come January. Payback is not a sufficient means for demanding oversight — in the short term it gets you headlines, but over the long run you build up scorn and a public need for rebuke, which we saw in the last election cycle in a whole lot of districts. 

This is about to be a whole new game inside the Beltway, and the press had better get used to it — because the Congress is about to start doing its job once again, and not simply rolling over and acting like a parliamentary rubber stamp for George Bush and his malignant pack of greedy cronies. Via TNR:

Waxman, who hounded the Reagan and first Bush White Houses as chairman of a subcommittee on health and the environment, now finds himself in the same place as did Dan Burton in 1994. Over the past few years, he has sought–and been denied–investigations into whether the administration possibly condoned detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay, tightened executive-branch secrecy, permitted the politicization of science, and bungled pre-war WMD intelligence. But now, after six years of being sidelined, Waxman suddenly looms as one of the Democrats' most important figures. As chairman of the Government Reform Committee, traditionally a lead investigative committee, he'd be sure to run some of a House Democratic majority's most dramatic and news-making hearings.

Waxman is surely just as giddy as Burton was to be taking the reins of power, newly able to make any member of the opposing party answer his beck and call. (In a potentially bitter irony for the GOP, Waxman says he'll retain an enhanced subpoena power that Republicans granted to Burton over Democratic objections–even though Waxman insists the use of subpoenas is a last resort.) But it's obvious that he has learned well from the countless pratfalls of the Gingrich Republicans. "In 1994, it was clear that Newt Gingrich had the intention of payback. I think the Republicans have given us a very good example over the past twelve years of how not to behave, and we ought to learn from that," Waxman explains, sitting in his Capitol Hill office in a maroon sweater.

Waxman's careful study of the GOP's overreach during the Clinton years is not the only reason that Republicans should be afraid. Though he represents a California district that includes West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont and Malibu Beach, Waxman–with his bald, oval head, large ears, and glasses–is anything but a shoot-from-the-hip proxy for buffoonish Hollywood celebrities. "He's not a hack. He's really well-respected in the caucus," says a House Democratic leadership aide. "Henry is a great prosecutor," says New Jersey Democrat Rob Andrews. (Democrats particularly respect Waxman's staff, led by his hard-driven chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, who retains a near-encyclopedic memory of Burton's foibles.)

When it comes to specific plans, Waxman is more coy than the verbose Dingell. "One of my priorities will be to pursue waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayers' money," he explains, citing Hurricane Katrina, homeland security, and Iraq as potential examples. What remains unclear is how intensely Democrats like Waxman intend to pursue the politics of the Iraq war. Hard-core Democrats would surely love nothing more than to see Donald Rumsfeld, Doug Feith, and Paul Wolfowitz sweating under the klieg lights as they explain the basis of their case for war. Waxman seems to shy away from the idea of reliving the fall of 2002 and spring of 2003. "That would have been an appropriate hearing to have," he says, conspicuously employing the past tense. "I think the manipulation of intelligence with the war was a very serious matter that should have been pursued in open hearings." Does that mean the moment for such hearings has passed? "I don't know what the issues will be," Waxman explains with a smile.

There has been article after article in recent days discussing potential areas of oversight. The WaPo has one today on Biden and Skelton and other Dems who will be holding hearing after hearing on the mess that is Iraq, the potential for escalation there and the over-use of the US military and our pathetic excuse for a lack of foreign policy. And that's just for starters. I know that Biden isn't exactly a favorite, and in all likelihood he's positioning himself at this point for the cameras for a Presidential run in 2008 — but whatever his motivation, he has selected an issue that sorely needs some sunlight and oversight and I, for one, applaud him for it along with every other Democrat who is willing to stand up and do their Constitutional duty of providing both a check and a balance to the Bush train wreck.

Wake up, Washington. It's almost January.  The restoration of the rule of law and the Constitutional obligations of the Congress to provide a check and balance to this overgrown shrub of a President is long overdue.  Study your history, people of the media, and gain some perspective from reading up on Dan Burton.

A man who would investigate a cat fan club provides a stark contrast to the seriousness of oversight that is genuinely needed on a whole host of issues:  war profiteering, misuse of public funds with close to 50% of the Department of Homeland Security's budget unaccounted for (more on that soon), dropping the ball on the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations altogether, AIDS, poverty, FEMA, and on and on and on…and that doesn't even get to the looming deficits, the pork barrel extravaganzas or any of the other messes created by the Republican Congress and this President.

Makes that whole "Socks the Cat"-gate seem a little catty, now doesn't it?

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com