WASHINGTON — It was a sign of things to come when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) bounded into the chairman's seat Wednesday to convene a hearing on electricity price controls in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
With their sudden ascension into the Senate majority, Democrats have regained control of one of Congress' most effective weapons: the power to summon witnesses to investigative hearings, backed by the authority to subpoena documents. And that could signal a major shift in the debate on a broad range of issues--energy policy foremost among them.
Though the Democrats lack a coordinated strategy, several committees plan hearings through the summer and fall that will shine a sustained spotlight on Bush administration energy policy decisions, and the role of energy companies in rising gasoline and electricity prices. Through these hearings, the Democrats hope to reshape the climate of public opinion around the energy debate, pressure both federal regulatory agencies and private companies to change their behavior--and score some political points by painting President Bush's policies as a boon to the energy industry.
"What this allows us to do is continue some of the unpleasant conversations that Bush is trying to avoid and that Bush could avoid in the more controlled atmosphere when Republicans held the Senate," said one Democratic strategist.
That prospect presents obvious problems for Bush, who already is battling the perception in opinion polls that he favors producers over consumers in the energy debate. But these inquiries also carry dangers for Democrats, who spent six years charging that congressional Republicans misused their investigative authority through repeated hearings into alleged ethical misdeeds by the Clinton administration.
"The public doesn't want to see a party that's out for blood. If they go down that path, the public will turn off just like it turned off on the Republicans," said John Podesta, President Clinton's White House chief of staff. "But what these investigations and oversight hearings can do is really help tell a story about whose side this White House is on . . . and what the impact is on real people's lives."
Senate Republicans wasted no time denouncing the hearings as a waste of time. "Let me tell you what the name of the game is now: It's pure politics," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chaired the Energy and Natural Resources panel until the Democratic takeover.
Asked about Wednesday's proceedings, he replied: "Is that going to produce any more energy?"
Conscious of both the opportunities and risks, Democrats are moving cautiously to exercise their new clout. Lieberman has not issued any subpoenas in his investigation into California's power crisis, and his first hearing Wednesday was a sedate affair that broke no new ground.
Still, the authority to investigate has always been one of Congress' most potent tools, particularly when Capitol Hill and the White House are held by different parties.
Over the last century, congressional hearings have largely divided into three categories. One tradition centers on allegations of ethical wrongdoing in the executive branch--such as the probes that unearthed the Teapot Dome oil scandal during Warren G. Harding's presidency, vetted the Watergate burglary that led to President Nixon's downfall or examined the Whitewater land deal and campaign fund-raising during Clinton's presidency.
Hearings also have been used to look for misbehavior in the private sector, usually as an attempt to lay the groundwork for reform legislation, such as the Depression-era hearings on the stock market crash that led to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And, finally, legislators have used the hearing forum as a competitor to the president's bully pulpit--as a means to draw attention to ideas the White House opposes. Probably the most successful example of that occurred in the 1960s, when nationally televised hearings by Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) on Vietnam crystallized opposition to the war.
During Clinton's presidency, Republicans emphasized ethics investigations. So far, in the energy debate, Democrats are focusing on the second and third categories.
"Hearings of the sort Lieberman is conducting aren't designed to disrupt [like the hearings during the Clinton administration]; they are designed to force new issues in the debate," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, who has written extensively on the process. "As long as the energy debate was conducted only inside the Republican Party, it was a debate between proponents of free markets and proponents of freer markets."