WASHINGTON — Summoning the ghost of Harry Truman, the Senate's freshman Democrats on Wednesday called for the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate wartime profiteering in Iraq.
Truman was a freshman senator from Missouri in 1941 when he led an inquiry into waste and abuse in government contracting during World War II.
Under the 2007 version of his effort, spearheaded by Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia, the proposed commission would investigate the mismanagement of private contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has resulted in $9 billion in taxpayer dollars unaccounted for.
McCaskill, a former state auditor who uses Truman's old Senate desk, said at a press conference of freshmen lawmakers, "I realized we had the same problem in this war that Harry Truman found in World War II, except that it's on steroids. It's out of control."
Truman subsequently became vice president and the nation's 33rd president in 1945 upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Webb said the plan to revive the Truman committee's work would create an eight-member Commission on Wartime Contracting, which would focus on the government's increasing reliance on private contracting during war.
He said it wouldn't create a new bureaucracy but would expand the role of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction by adding oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction and private contracts for security and logistical support to its portfolio.
The commission would issue a report after one year, a final report after two and then shut down.
The Los AngeIes Times reported this month that Iraq has more private contractors than U.S. troops. More than 180,000 individuals are working under Department of Defense and State Department contracts, compared with 160,000 members of the military.
McCaskill noted that even the security detail guarding Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, was composed of private contractors.
Between 2003 and 2006, the United States spent more than $300 billion to help stabilize and reconstruct Iraq, according to the Government Accountability Office.
"Government accountability was a major issue in all of our campaigns," Webb said of the freshmen lawmakers. "There's been remarkably little accountability. We'd like to help the taxpayers of this country get their money back."
The freshmen had planned to attach the legislation to the defense authorization bill the Senate has been debating for two weeks. But the Democratic leadership withdrew the bill Wednesday after an unsuccessful all-night debate to add an Iraq troop withdrawal amendment.
With the backing of several senior Democratic lawmakers, the freshmen intend to introduce it as a separate bill and hope to attract Republican support.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota, said that as a former prosecutor, her office motto was "follow the money and you'll find the bad guys. That's what we're trying to do with the legislation."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007