New Chairman Towns is unknown commodity at House Oversight

As the 111th Congress kicks into high gear, one of the big questions on Capitol Hill, within government agencies and among contractors, is what’s going to happen to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — the self-styled watchdog of program malfeasance and inefficiency.

For the past eight years, the committee has been a fairly constant thorn in the side of everyone and anyone who came in the sights of its chairmen.

Most recently, that was Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who took the reins from Virginia Republican Tom Davis. Indeed, the oversight panel has been nearly the only standing committee during that time to regularly exercise Congress’s constitutional oversight duty.

Davis has since left Congress and Waxman has taken over the gavel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a wide and extensive brief and, among its Democratic agitants, at least, an oversight bite as big as its bark.Waxman will continue to be the big dog in that arena, so how the oversight committee fits into the new mix is unclear.

“I think it’s safe to say the committee won’t be as sexy or high profile as it has been of late,” said David Marin, who was majority staff director under Davis from 2005 to 2007. “You don’t have Henry Waxman, you don’t have Tom Davis, and you don’t have a Bush administration that’s offered such a wealth of investigative opportunities.” The committee’s new chairman, Democratic Rep.

Edolphus Towns of New York, has been a member of Congress for 26 years but is an unknown commodity when it comes to running his own show. He’s been something of an outlier in the Democratic caucus; at one point in 2005, Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened to take away his seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee for failing to toe the party line on trade policy.

Towns, 74, had been the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Management, Organization and Procurement since 2007. He assumes the committee’s gavel based on his overall seniority, but he will continue to owe his fate to Pelosi and the party’s high command.

Towns has already made a speedy start. On Jan. 8, the House passed two pieces of legislation that Towns authored to improve transparency for presidential records.

Towns also has shown a fluency in technology issues, particularly on digital divide questions, according to Congressional Quarterly’s “Politics in America.” From his seat on the energy panel’s Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, Towns pushed through a bill in 2007 that requires the commerce secretary to establish a grant program to promote computer networking in minority educational institutions. Earlier, the House passed a Towns-sponsored bill that targeted computer hijacking and phishing schemes which try to fool computer owners into parting with sensitive information such as credit card numbers.

In an interview with Federal Computer Week, Towns said he shares priorities with Obama and foresees a fruitful congressional session as the new administration takes shape.

“It is a great time to take charge,” Towns said. “There’s a new president talking about transparency in government.

We plan to be talking about transparency, too, so I see us working together on it.” Towns is known for his congenial bipartisanship and low-key style, but he promises to get tough if necessary. “I’m a strong coalition-builder,” Towns said. “I hope to make things happen. But if they don’t, people have to know, I’m from Brooklyn and we know how to get it done.” Political observers have suggested that a Democratic chairman might go easy on oversight of a president from his own party. In response, Towns said his plate is full with reforms needed to address the lingering effects of the Bush administration. “I see the committee as being able to correct some of the problems we’ve seen,” Towns said. “We can fix it, strengthen the government and have it working more efficiently.” One of Towns’ priorities is promoting legislation he wrote last year that would prohibit tax-delinquent contractors from receiving additional contracts.

“Many contractors don’t pay their taxes,” Towns said, adding with a laugh that “they say they need to get a contract so they can pay their taxes.” Towns plans to hold hearings on topics such as oversight of the federal financial bailouts, federal contracting reforms, the Government Accountability Office’s list of high-risk agency information technology programs, government information security, the Bernard Madoff fraud case and health care.

He said he hopes to strengthen the role of federal inspectors general. They cannot do their jobs right unless they’re completely independent of the agencies they monitor, he said.

“In the past, the chairmanship of the Oversight Committee has been a bully pulpit,” said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of the FedSources research firm.

“With a Democratic Congress and Democratic administration, I think there will be less conflict.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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