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Congress girds up for return to oversight

Probes include alleged contracting abuses in Iraq and the alteration of scientific findings.

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Not since the Depression-era Congress of 1932 has Capitol Hill ramped up so quickly for oversight hearings and related legislation – most targeting the Bush administration.

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are hiring more lawyers, and watchdog groups say they are swamped with calls from committee staff asking for advice on pursuing the nearly lost art of congressional investigation.

In its first 100 days, the new Congress launched probes on allegations ranging from contracting abuses in Iraq and the alteration of scientific findings to the misuse of federal resources for partisan purposes. Some hearings, such as those on last year's firing of eight US attorneys, were snatched from the headlines; others are longer-term campaigns to try to uncover any government waste and to expand the public's access to how government conducts its business.

"There's a whole culture of effective oversight, which the Congress carried out in the 1970s up through the early 1990s, that has been very much lost, and there's a lot of effort now going on to rebuild oversight skills," says Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former deputy House counsel.

On Wednesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee is set to convene a hearing on what it calls the "improper use of National Security Letters by the FBI." The full Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is preparing for an April 17 showdown with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over alleged misstatements to Congress about why the US attorneys were dismissed.

On the House side, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee (formerly the Government Reform Committee) has held 17 hearings since Jan. 30 on issues ranging from alleged waste, fraud, abuse, and government secrecy. It is also looking into reports of improper political interference into the Justice Department's recent case against the tobacco industry.

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