(CNSNews.com) - Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and his House counterpart, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), seem to be the most vexed members of Congress regarding the Bush administration's claims of executive privilege.
Yet Leahy and Conyers showed far less outrage during the previous administration, said Ken Boehm, executive director of the National Legal Policy Center, a conservative government watchdog group.
"The Clinton administration invoked executive privilege more than his two predecessors combined," Boehm told Cybercast News Service. "Leahy was one of the biggest Clinton defenders against oversight, and Conyers was just the opposite in 1998 of what we see now."
Democrats, in the minority during most of the Clinton administration, often spoke of Republican investigations of the Clinton White House as partisan witch hunts. Some of those investigations included Whitewater, alleged campaign contributions from China, Filegate and the Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Many of those same members who complained about too much oversight in the 1990s are now in the majority of Congress.
"They've launched 300 investigations, had over 350 requests for documents and interviews," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, speaking of the Democrats. "Since taking over, they had over 600 oversight hearings in just about 100 days."
The numbers have reportedly been disputed by Democratic members of Congress, but they offered no numbers in their place. Democrats have held hearings on the firing of federal prosecutors; the warrantless surveillance program; alleged improper use of national security letters by the FBI; alleged contracting fraud in Iraq; the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects; and the "outing" of CIA employee Valerie Plame.
Boehm contends that while investigative hearings are often partisan, the allegations against the Clinton administration were usually far more substantial, he said.
"The quality of their investigations is almost laughable," Boehm said, in reference to the U.S. attorneys firings' probe. "It does seem like a fishing expedition. There is nothing on anybody to point to anything wrong."
'Who pays for the postage?'
But for Republicans to complain about too much oversight is a bit ridiculous, said Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
"The American people hired the Democrats in 2006 so we could keep the White House accountable and restore checks and balances," Miranda told Cybercast News Service. "If you think investigating Socks the cat was justified, that's your prerogative. Democrats are investigating fraud and abuse in Iraq and other serious issues."
Miranda referred to a 1995 letter from then-chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Dan Burton asking what "the standard practice is for the White House to respond to mail directed at 'Socks,' your cat. How many of those inquiries were responded to over the past two years? Who pays for the postage?"
In a probe by the same committee to determine if the Clinton White House was sharing a government database with the DNC, the committee asked for the White House Christmas card list.
"Dan Burton's hearings into the Clinton's Christmas cards was abusive, and I'm sure [current House Oversight Committee Chairman] Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) could hold an abusive hearing," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
"But oversight is a legitimate function of Congress," she said. "It's a bigger problem if we have none, which we had six years of. ... Members of both parties should be careful not to denigrate congressional oversight. It's not their role only when the president is of the opposite party."
Sloan added that Republicans must have conducted more probes of Clinton simply because they controlled Congress for six years of the Clinton administration, while Democrats will only have oversight powers in the last two years of Bush's White House tenure.
Investigating the executive branch is a key role for Congress, said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University. Just how much is too much is up to the voters, he said.
"In the 1990s, there were a lot of investigations of Clinton that culminated in impeachment, the ultimate congressional oversight," Goldstein told Cybercast News Service. "If the public is sufficiently alert, they will punish Congress for oversight that is politically motivated and appreciate a Congress that directs oversight at appropriate government purposes."
He added that it's natural partisans would have a different view of when it is and isn't appropriate. But, he added, Congress has a history of bipartisan oversight.
"In the 1960s, it was Democrats during the Johnson administration that began oversight of the Vietnam War," he said. "The investigation into Watergate involved important leading Republicans such as Howard Baker."
Regardless of which party conducted the most investigations, the Bush and Clinton records can't really be compared, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog.
"It's not that the Bush administration is free of criminal conduct, with Scooter Libby," Fitton told Cybercast News Service. "But the congressional investigations of the Clinton administration officials were also under investigation by the Department of Justice.
"I'm not denying that Republicans didn't investigation Clinton for political gain," Fitton continued. "But given the level of criminal conduct in the Clinton administration, I don't think we've seen in history, there is no comparison."
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