WASHINGTON — Rep. Ike Skelton knows what he will do in one of his first acts as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Democratic-led House: resurrect the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
The panel was disbanded by the Republicans after they won control of Congress in 1994. Now, Skelton (D-Mo.) intends to use it as a forum to probe Pentagon spending and the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war.
It has been 12 years since Democrats were in control of both the House and Senate. But they are looking to make up for lost time, and in some cases, make the Bush administration and its business allies sweat.
With control of every committee in Congress starting in January, the new majority will inherit broad powers to subpoena and investigate. And that is expected to translate into wide-ranging and contentious hearings.
The agenda is likely to be dominated by the Iraq war, but could include probes into the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance, environmental policies and new prescription-drug program for seniors. Industries, such as oil companies, could also come under closer scrutiny.
"The American people sent a clear message that they do not want a rubber-stamp Congress that simply signs off the president's agenda," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who is in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Instead, they have voted for a new direction for America and a real check and balance against government overreaching."
Conyers and other Democrats say that sort of scrutiny has been noticeably absent over the last six years. Democrats accuse Republicans of being complicit as Bush has led the nation into an unwinnable war and adopted economic polices that favor the affluent and big business.
Under Republican control, Congress did subpoena baseball players to discuss steroid use and summon oil industry executives to justify record profits at a time of high gasoline prices.
"What we have to be wary of, and the American public will be wary of, is a subpoena bazaar here on Capitol Hill, and government by investigation by Democrats," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
But even some scholars say recent GOP oversight has been lax. "This could be remembered as a historically unique period in which an administration got immunity from Congress to engage in errors with impunity," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor and a former House counsel.
Democrats face a delicate balancing test, mindful of a public backlash if they focus more on investigating than legislating.
Their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), has already ruled some investigations out of bounds. Conyers has wanted Congress to determine whether there are grounds to impeach Bush. But Pelosi has said that will not happen.
While there is pent-up demand among Democrats in Congress and their constituencies to oversee the Bush administration, their new caucus will also include a number of moderates and conservatives, which may force the leadership to tone down its act.
"The Democrats are going to be cross-pressured. They could hold impeachment hearings. They could make people in the Bush administration look absolutely terrible. It wouldn't be hard," said Joel Aberbach, a UCLA political science professor. "But there may be a little restraint because of their political needs in terms of consolidating themselves and looking to the 2008 election."
Democrats are expected to bore into the Iraq war, including review of no-bid contracts for reconstruction, intelligence failures and decisions to ignore the advice of military commanders about troop levels.
"Rather than focus on the failings of the war, though, these events will be staged in order to highlight the administration's incompetence and inflexibility," said William Howell, an associate professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said, if he becomes chairman, he would look into "security at our nuclear labs, oversight of the Food and Drug Administration, and energy policy."
Now that they have the power of the subpoena, Democrats expect to be able to get the administration's attention. A number of senior Democrats have complained that the administration has ignored their inquiries.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, this year was in the middle of grilling Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina when the Republican chairing the hearing cut him off. He had used his allotted five minutes.
Now that Oberstar, of Minnesota, is in line to become the committee chairman, among his first acts is expected to be scrapping the five-minute rule established by the GOP majority.