WASHINGTON — The chairman of the main watchdog committee in Congress wants to get to the bottom of a few things about Iraq.
Is the Iraqi government hopelessly corrupt? Does that corruption mean taxpayer dollars end up with killer militias? Whatever became of the $1 billion the State Department was supposed to spend on Iraqi police? That's for starters.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is in a unique position to demand answers to Iraq's big questions as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Waxman can subpoena officials who don't cooperate and make them testify under oath at hearings, something he didn't have the power to do when Democrats were in the minority before January. He also can put the committee's two dozen investigators to work.
The oversight committee doesn't spend all its time on Iraq. Waxman puts no limits on what it can investigate, and he's interested in many things, especially issues concerning health and the environment — sooty air, for example, or whether the Food and Drug Administration can protect the public from contaminated food.
But Iraq is a priority. Waxman, who's represented the California district that includes Beverly Hills for 32 years, says it galls him that "we were talked into a war based on false information." He means to "hold people accountable for getting us into this war and the way this war is conducted."
"When Bush became president, the Republicans in charge of oversight decided there was no scandal too big for them to ignore," Waxman said. "They didn't want to hold hearings. They didn't want to look at anything that might embarrass the president, which is contrary to the constitutional separation of powers that provides checks and balances."
Waxman grew up talking politics at home in Los Angeles. His father and mother were "fervent New Dealers" and the children of Russian immigrants. His father had a grocery store and later worked for other grocers. Waxman was the first in the family to graduate from college. Now 68, he's been an elected official since he won a seat in the California legislature at 28.
His record includes sponsoring the Clean Air Act and the 1990 bill that provided federal grants to cities for the care of AIDS patients.
Waxman became chairman of the oversight panel when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in January.
"Waxman has been a spectacular success in his first year as chairman of the full committee," said Thomas E. Mann, a Congress expert at The Brookings Institution, a centrist policy research group. "On all important counts — the range, volume and quality of his oversight initiatives — he almost single-handedly revived the critical role of Congress in overseeing the executive."
The ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, said that when one party controls both the presidency and Congress, "oversight tends to disappear."
"You tend to under-investigate," Davis said. "When you have two-party rule, you tend to over-investigate. Henry's overstepped it a couple of times, but he's doing some needed things as well. . . . Some of the things he's doing are useful."
But for committee member Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., there's been too much negativity.
"I have served on this committee for 20 years, and everything this committee has done since we've gone into Iraq in this last year, in particular, has been to try to point out everything bad that is going on," Shays said Thursday, as Waxman and others listened during a hearing held to question Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Iraq.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., agreed, complaining that the hearing was intended to "make the State Department look bad, the Iraqis look bad, the contractors look bad."
Waxman's committee has issued 22 subpoenas so far, 11 of them to the State Department. He wrote in a recent letter to Rice that the department had instructed its personnel not to speak publicly about how the Iraqi government is doing or whether it has the will or ability to fight corruption. He also noted that the department classified some reports on Iraq that had been public.
Waxman's style is to question persistently, repeating his question several times in slightly different ways if he's not satisfied with the answers. He often smiles as he ends a question. He's direct, but polite.
On Thursday, for example, he asked Rice several times about allegations that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has blocked corruption investigations of top officials.
Rice said she'd have to get more information and get back to him. She said corruption certainly was pervasive and that the State Department was investigating. She said she didn't want to expose sources, so officials would tell the committee about Iraq corruption only in a closed meeting.
"The problem with that offer is that you will give this information that we then cannot make public because it's then confidential," Waxman replied. "And I think there are a lot of things that ought to be made public."
(Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)