A majority is a terrible thing to waste. That's not stopping congressional Democrats.
When not trying to force a pullout from Iraq, their main effort has been chasing Bush-administration scandals that loom large only in their fevered imaginations. Democrats consider this "change," but it is really a toxic repeat of the Republican investigative onslaught against Bill Clinton in the 1990s and of the Democratic one against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s -- in other words, business as usual when Congress confronts a hated presidential adversary.
The Democrats' latest tactic is to give an implicit choice to Bush officials: They can either come to Capitol Hill to testify so Democrats can try to build a perjury case against them, or they can refuse, in which case Democrats will cite them for criminal contempt of Congress. Either path leads inexorably to Democratic calls for a special counsel. Democrats love the prospect of another couple of Patrick Fitzgeralds, drumming Bush officials out of public life with onerous legal bills for their trouble.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been a particular target, and why not? He's so incapable of defending himself that, for grandstanding Democrats, cuffing him around is risk-free fun, like cruel kids pulling the wings off insects. The new perjury accusation against him is based on testimony this past week in which he often was kept from saying two sentences in a row without being interrupted and called a liar.
He tried to say that the publicly disclosed National Security Agency surveillance activity referred to as a "terrorist surveillance program" was uncontroversial within the administration, but that other, still-classified NSA activities were contentious and led to a dramatic visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004 to try to get them re-authorized. Between the interruptions, the difficulty of discussing classified activities in public and Gonzales' expository shortcomings, it all got garbled, but a well-intentioned person could understand his point.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's Democrats preferred to pretend that they had witnessed a flagrantly perjurious performance. Gonzales is being tormented on another front, too -- the firings of U.S. attorneys. Democrats can't explain how the administration's firing of U.S. attorneys who serve at its pleasure could be criminal, but apparently want to spend the rest of the Bush presidency hunting for evidence of this elusive wrongdoing.
A House committee subpoenaed Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers to testify, predictably drawing a White House assertion of executive privilege. President Bush would be remiss if he didn't keep his aides from being forced to reveal deliberations about such a core executive function as hiring and firing executive-branch officials. Now the House is moving toward citing these high-level White House officials for criminal contempt of Congress, an unprecedented move.
And a futile one. It has been the policy of administrations of both parties that -- on grounds of separation of powers -- U.S. attorneys won't enforce criminal contempt of Congress for assertions of executive privilege. Democrats simply could take the dispute to court. Instead, they want the contempt citations and constitutional showdown. The more headlines about subpoenas, contempt of Congress, special counsels and all the other investigative detritus, they figure, the better.
This is a grave political miscalculation. Absent a Watergate-style smoking gun, or at least some plausible whiff of gunpowder, voters aren't interested in scandal monomania. The only political effect of the investigative onslaught is to please the bloodthirsty Democratic "netroots" who are desperate for excuses to try to impeach Bush, while convincing voters that Washington is a disgusting cockpit of partisan rancor oblivious to their true concerns. There is a reason President Bush can be at 28 percent approval and still double Congress' rating in some polls.
But Democrats can't help themselves. They've held more than 600 oversight hearings so far, and these hearings are close to their only accomplishment. The Democratic majority brings to mind a paraphrase of the old saw about teaching: Those who can, legislate. Those who can't, investigate.