With the president preparing to hit up Congress for an additional $80 billion for the war in Iraq, I thought it might be a good time to crack open a history book.
In 1941, as the United States was on the verge of entering World War II, Sen. Harry S. Truman launched an investigation into reports of widespread waste, corruption and mismanagement in the nascent war effort. Over the next three years, the Truman Committee held hundreds of public hearings, visited military bases across the country and ended up saving taxpayers $15 billion. His efforts also saved countless lives by rooting out contractors using inferior materials and producing shoddy equipment.
We sure could use "Give 'em Hell, Harry" today -- although, given the epidemic of corruption infecting the reconstruction of Iraq, even he would have his work cut out for him.
By even the most charitable standard, the effort to rebuild Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster -- a cornucopia of waste, fraud, ineptitude, cronyism, secret no-bid contracts and profiteering cloaked in patriotism. There is the $9 billion the U.S.-led occupation government can't account for; the more than 70 investigations into potential criminal cases involving U.S.-funded projects; the ongoing billing disputes with Halliburton (which, despite having repeatedly ripped off taxpayers, continues to receive billion-dollar contracts); the $20 billion in Iraqi oil money kept track of by a single accountant; the study showing that up to 30 percent of reconstruction funds are being lost to fraud and corporate malfeasance. Whether you are passionately in favor of the war or passionately against it, don't you want to know exactly where our money is going and how we can stop the corruption?
Little of the $24 billion in taxpayer money that Congress has earmarked for reconstruction is reaching ordinary Iraqis: Two years after we cakewalked over Saddam, the Iraqi people are still facing massive food shortages, energy shortages and woefully inadequate water and sewage systems. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, only 27 cents of every dollar spent on rebuilding Iraq has gone to actually improving the lives of its people, with the rest going to security, waste, overhead and fattening the bottom line of big U.S. corporations.
Despite this abysmal track record, Congress has all but relinquished its historic -- and constitutionally mandated -- role as government watchdog, one of the keys to our system of checks and balances. Instead, these days, our watchdogs have turned into lap dogs. You'd think that with the massive amounts of taxpayer dollars involved and the unprecedented secrecy that surrounded the awarding of so many of the reconstruction contracts -- to say nothing of the stink left by the rampant corporate scandals of recent years -- the halls of Congress would be filled with modern-day Harry Trumans. After all, what is particularly inspiring about the Truman Committee is that it was established when Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House.
It's true that FDR initially wasn't crazy about the idea of the straight-shooting Truman poking around in his war budget, but he ended up being so impressed with the way Truman conducted himself and his investigation, he soon elevated the formerly undistinguished senator from Missouri to the vice presidency. I wonder if there are any 2008 GOP presidential hopefuls with the courage to take up the Truman mantle.
Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, introduced legislation to create a Truman Committee on Iraq in the House early last year. It was followed last September by a Senate resolution with the same goal, cosponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Until this week, both efforts had stalled.
Now Leach, together with Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., is considering the best way to revive the Truman Committee bill and bring it to the floor, where it will be very hard to vote against it. "We're going to put out a 'Dear Colleague' letter this week," Leach told me, "to see how many cosponsors we can get for the legislation. This is more urgent now than it was when I first introduced the bill. We have to give the public confidence that their money is being used wisely. Accountability is difficult at home and much more difficult abroad, so oversight is even more critical."
Tierney agrees. "Accountability and transparency are critical," he told me. "Just as Harry Truman fought for Congress to play a special oversight role during World War II, I believe we are called again to shed light on any potential abuse of taxpayer dollars."
Much of the Truman Committee's moral authority came from the bipartisan consensus it achieved (its GOP members never felt the need to issue a minority report), and from its reputation as being eminently fair. Leach and Tierney should try to make the creation of a modern Truman Committee an amendment to the supplemental request for $80 billion more for Iraq. And courageous Republicans in both chambers of Congress should place principle -- as well as the protection of U.S. taxpayers and the needs of the Iraqi people -- above a shallow definition of party loyalty.
But we should not hold our breath waiting for this to happen without real public pressure. It could include a public awareness campaign to hold our elected officials' feet to the fire. A friend in advertising sent me the script for a proposed 30-second TV ad in which a corporate bigwig uses a sleight-of-hand trick to turn a dollar bill into a quarter and two pennies, while an announcer says: "We've set aside $24 billion to help rebuild Iraq. The money is supposed to help build schools and hospitals and make water safe to drink. But for every dollar U.S. taxpayers spend, only 27 cents reaches the average Iraqi. Before we give George Bush another $80 billion, maybe we should stop and ask: Where is the money going?" The spot ends with three quick messages flashed on the screen: "Stop the profiteers. Demand an investigation."
Publication date: 2/24/04