It’s recently come to my attention that even some big name bloggers do not understand how committees work in Congress. Many people have suggested that a Democratic Senate, say a 51-49 Democratic Majority, would not have prevented Samuel Alito from getting on the court. As evidence in support of this, people have pointed to the successful nominations of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas under Democratic Senates, and the final tallies on the John Roberts and Alito confirmation votes.

Senate committee positions are allocated to each party in proportion to the party’s overall strength. Right now the committees have two more Republicans than they have Democrats. However, if the Democrats were to attain a majority in November, next year they would have the two extra seats.

In the recent Judiciary hearings for Samuel Alito the Democrats were united and all of them voted against sending Alito to the floor for a vote. So, if the Dems had been in the majority, and if their two additional Senators had held fast, Alito would have been killed in committee. But, even more importantly, the administration would not have nominated a candidate without having assurances beforehand that their nominee had the support of at least two Democrats.

When it comes to Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and their hearings on the NSA wiretapping program the Washington Post reports:

The second White House flurry occurred last Thursday, as the Senate intelligence committee readied for a showdown over a motion by top Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) to start a broad inquiry into the surveillance program. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. — who had visited the Capitol two days earlier with Vice President Cheney to lobby Republicans on the program — spoke by phone with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), according to Senate sources briefed on the call.

Snowe earlier had expressed concerns about the program’s legality and civil liberties safeguards, but Card was adamant about restricting congressional oversight and control, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing office policies. Snowe seemed taken aback by Card’s intransigence, and the call amounted to “a net step backward” for the White House, said a source outside Snowe’s office.

Snowe contacted fellow committee Republican Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who also had voiced concerns about the program. They arranged a three-way phone conversation with Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

Until then, Roberts apparently thought he had the votes to defeat Rockefeller’s motion in the committee, which Republicans control nine to seven, the sources said. But Snowe and Hagel told the chairman that if he called up the motion, they would support it, assuring its passage, the sources said.

When the closed meeting began, Roberts averted a vote on Rockefeller’s motion by arranging for a party-line vote to adjourn until March 7. The move infuriated Rockefeller, who told reporters, “The White House has applied heavy pressure in recent weeks to prevent the committee from doing its job.”

Thinking back on the smirking testimony of Alberto Gonzales during the Judiciary Committee’s farcical NSA hearing, it is easy to tell why he felt so comfortable. He knew that the real hearings, if any real hearings would be held at all, would not be in front of Arlen Specter’s committee but in front of Pat Roberts’s committee. And Pat Roberts has such a history of stonewalling that it recently led the New York Times to ask:

“Is there any aspect of President Bush’s miserable record on intelligence that Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is not willing to excuse and help to cover up?”

In this instance it is not clear that Roberts has the votes to cover up the NSA program. But, he definitely has the will…and he has until March 7th to figure something out.

It is obvious that Jay Rockefeller, if he were the Chairman of this committee, would have a rigorous set of hearings that would end the illegal domestic surveillance program, put it under the supervision of the FISA court, or lead directly to impeachment hearings.

On the Foreign Affairs committee, Biden would replace Dick Lugar and John Bolton never would have been nominated (to be recess appointed later).

On the Armed Forces committee, Carl Levin would replace John Warner and the Pentagon would have been reined in.

On Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Teddy Kennedy would replace Michael Enzi of Wyoming with results that can only be imagined.

And when we go over to the House of Representatives, we can make some of the same assumptions. The Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee in none other than John Conyers. Conyers is the hardest hitting person in either house of Congress, and with the title of Chairman he would be going hogwild to expose and put an end to illegal domestic surveillance and a host of other excesses of this administration.

And Jane Harman is the Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee. She would assure that the NSA program complied with FISA.

I am not suggesting that, if put in the majority, the Democrats would suddenly begin standing up to this administration in all the ways that we would like. But, the administration has moved so close to the edge on a host of legal issues, that the loss of one house could have a snowballing effect.

The only thing standing between this administration being taken down for illegal domestic surveillance, doctored intelligence, and crimes against humanity is the ability and willingness of the Republican committee chairs to block oversight.

That is why I believe that in 2006 the American voter should put law enforcement ahead of policy. If candidates like Bob Casey make the difference between a 50-50 Senate and a 51-49 Senate and the mere fact of his election will flip all the committee chairs, then I am willing to put up with the fact that I hate his positions on women’s rights, on gay rights, and on stem-cell research.

I am upset about the way Reid, Rahm, and Schumer have handled themselves in their recruitment of candidates. They’ve shown a total disrespect for the state parties, and exhibited little character in the handling of Hackett. I want to find a way to create an alternate power center that can push back against these actions in the future and I am trying to help Chuck Pennacchio. But, for now, I’ll settle for a majority. And then, I hope, some frog-marching.

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