Save, perhaps, for his mustache, there's nothing about Henry Waxman that would lead anyone to mistake him for Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s rise to general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party included stints as a Bolshevik bank robber and a commissar in the Red Army; Waxman was elected to Congress after representing an affluent West Los Angeles district in the California State Assembly. Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization resulted in a famine that killed six million Ukrainians; the only person Waxman has ever starved is himself—and then only on Yom Kippur. And, while Stalin subjected his opponents to hard labor, torture, and frequently death in the gulag, the worst thing Waxman has ever inflicted on his foes is a few hours of questioning in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which he chairs.
And yet, to hear Republicans tell it, Waxman might as well be nicknamed Henry the Dread. The reason for the Stalin analogies is that Democratic committee chairs have authorized subpoenas for top White House and Justice Department officials to testify at hearings about the U.S. attorney purge and other myriad Bush administration scandals—hearings that President Bush himself has disparaged as “show trials."
Now, it's possible that Bush slept through his Soviet history lessons, but show trials, of course, are not really trials at all—their verdicts having been predetermined with the defendants’ “confessions" extracted through torture. Contrast that with what Democrats hope to achieve by subpoenaing administration officials. Democrats don't know whether Karl Rove had a hand in the firings of U.S. attorneys, although there's enough circumstantial evidence to suspect that he did. The fact that Democrats want him to testify about the matter in public— as opposed to being "interviewed” behind closed doors, not under oath, and with no transcript, as the Bush administration has offered—does not mean that Democrats want to conduct a show trial. Far from it. They simply want to know what Rove did or did not do—and they are more likely to get the straight story if Rove is under oath and there's an actual written record of his answers. Whatever Rove says, his answers will not have been coerced through torture. And, even if it turns out that Rove did have a hand in the U.S. attorney firings, the worst possible outcome for him won't include exile in Mexico and assassination with an ice pick. It's doubtful he'd even be frog marched out of the White House.
Of course, it's hardly a surprise that Bush would consider the prospect of oversight akin to Stalinism. (If only the Supreme Soviet had tried to hold Stalin accountable for his abuses of power!) But Bush is not alone in looking askance at Democrats’ willingness to exercise oversight authority. Much of the pundit class thinks it's a bad idea, too. As Time editor Richard Stengel recently remarked: "I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove, because it is so bad for them. Because it shows business as usual, tit for tat, vengeance."
But Congress exercising its oversight authority is anything but business as usual. For most of his six-plus years in the White House, President Bush has enjoyed Republican majorities that have conducted virtually no oversight of his administration. The fallout from this lack of oversight can be seen in nearly every Bush administration failure and scandal—from the Iraq war to warrantless wiretapping to the various entanglements between administration officials and Jack Abramoff. Now, with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, those days are coming to an end. That doesn't mean that congressional Democrats are engaging in the same excesses that Republicans were guilty of during the Clinton administration. For instance, Waxman—who occupies the same chair that Indiana Republican Dan Burton used in the 1990s to investigate his wild conspiracy theories about Vince Foster’s death—has demonstrated admirable restraint. His investigations of the war in Iraq have been limited to narrow— and important—topics like President Bush's incorrect prewar claim that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger and ongoing corruption in the Iraqi oil ministry. His domestic investigations have focused on matters like political abuses at the General Services Administration. He has yet to shoot a pumpkin in his backyard.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, to borrow a phrase, but congressional Democrats would be derelict if they did not vigorously pursue apparent abuses of power by the Bush administration. The U.S. attorney scandal is a good place to start. As we have previously noted, it's likely that the administration violated no laws when it fired the eight U.S. attorneys. But it did violate the important norm of presidents not firing prosecutors they appointed in the middle of their terms—which ensured that prosecutors would deploy the law free of partisan considerations. The administration should be held accountable for violating this norm. And Congress, by shining light on this violation, would be doing just that. In the process, it would be standing for an important norm in its own right: the norm of oversight. There's nothing showy about that.
The Sino-Indian Fallacy
Hang around Republicans long enough, and you're bound to hear bogus arguments about why the United States shouldn't bother reducing its carbon emissions in order to avert catastrophic global warming. Greenhouse gases aren't even causing climate change, they'll say, and, anyway, a warmer planet won't be that bad. Those claims are false, as recent assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make clear. A more valid objection is that, even if the United States does take action, so long as China and India refuse to cut their own emissions, the planet will continue heating up regardless. By 2008, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and India is rapidly catching up.
But this is no excuse for sitting on our hands. The United States and Europe have traditionally been the largest emitters of greenhouse gases—and they are responsible for the vast bulk of the carbon sitting in the atmosphere. (In 2025, the United States will still have been responsible for roughly twice as much cumulative global warming pollution since 1980 as China and India combined.)As such, we have an obligation to lead the way in mitigating the effects of our own emissions. While it's true that China and India will need to take part in any effort to forestall drastic change, it’s unreasonable to expect them to act before the developed world does.
Contrary to popular belief, there are signs that both China and India do take global warming seriously. Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist, has said that "a real change in discussion" has begun, privately, in both countries. Although China did not sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, it has recently announced that it will enter talks for a post-Kyoto framework and will unveil its own plan to tackle climate change this month. The Chinese have already announced a goal of improving energy efficiency 20 percent over the next five years, and they currently have fuel-economy standards stricter than those in the United States.
So how can we encourage China and India to continue reducing emissions? We could start by capping our own and fostering a domestic market for alter-native energy and new technologies, which could then be shared with the developing world. If, for instance, carbon sequestration was perfected here, it could be sold to China, which would improve the environmental outlook for a country that builds a new coal plant every week. Likewise, solar-panel installation, which is growing rapidly in India, could grow much more quickly if an advanced solar market existed in the United States.
If, in the end, China and India can't or won't reduce their emissions enough to prevent the world from warming, bad things will happen. But even that dire possibility is no reason for inaction. After all, not every grim scenario is equal. A world that warms only 3 degrees will still be less catastrophic than a world that warms 4 degrees. The United States must do what it can to limit the damage.
Over the last several years, health care—and the lack thereof—has become a signature issue of this magazine. And no writer has done more to elucidate the health care crisis in these pages than TNR Senior Editor Jonathan Cohn. This week marks the publication of Sick, Jon's gripping account of our broken system. With his characteristic humanity, Jon explores the struggles of everyday Americans to secure affordable health care and trumpets the call for reform. There's a rising movement for change, and Sick will be its bible.
This article originally ran in the April 23, 2007 issue of the magazine.