Verbatim, as delivered
Remarks of Chairman Tom Lantos
At Hearing on Proposed Legislation on Iraq
When our founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago, they carefully crafted a Constitution that balances the Federal Government’s powers to prevent their abuse by any single person or institution. The U.S. Constitution established in its very first article a Congress of the United States as a co-equal branch of government to ensure against a repeat of the type of tyranny that the American people experienced under the arrogant rule of King George.
Now our country enters its fifth year of military operations in Iraq. For the first four years of the war, Congress failed to exercise its constitutionally-mandated role of limiting the power of a single institution: the Executive Branch.
Under the congressional majority at the time, oversight was scarce. There was no meaningful legislation to help set the direction of the effort in Iraq. And there was little serious debate in this institution about the conduct of the war.
In short, Congress became the amen corner for the Administration. And a single-minded set of Administration officials chose to turn a deaf ear to our concerns.
The November elections changed all that. The newly-elected Congress has moved assertively to restore the role of Congress as a coequal branch of government directly representing the voice of the people.
Congress has held more hearings on Iraq during the last three months than in the previous four years combined. This is almost unbelievable, so I would like to repeat it: Congress has held more hearings on Iraq during the last three months than in the previous four years combined. In the past 10 weeks, this committee alone has held more than two dozen hearings on the critical foreign policy issues facing our nation today, including five specifically on the war in Iraq. And our work has just begun. The members of this committee will continue to ask hard questions and refuse to accept brush-off answers.
This week the House will move beyond debate on Iraq towards concrete action for the second time this session. One month ago we made it clear that we oppose escalation in Iraq, and I was proud to be the author of that legislation along with my friend, Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, and Representative Walter Jones.
Later this week we will vote to add rationality to the war effort. I strongly support the Supplemental Appropriations bill, which will set long-overdue timelines for removing most American combat troops from Iraq and will establish benchmarks to hold the Government of Iraq accountable for reaching a political solution to the civil war that has been raging there.
In addition to this very important action on the House floor on Thursday, today our committee will begin consideration of more than 30 bills designed to deal with different aspects of the Iraq War – from promoting diplomatic solutions, to ending the deployment of American troops, to stopping the mismanagement of reconstruction funds. Just a few short months ago, these bills would not have received a hearing in this committee. But I believe that every member who has brought forth legislation on this crucial foreign policy issue deserves to be heard.
The discussion here will move us closer to agreement on how our country conducts itself in Iraq from now on, and how and when our troops come home, and what we leave behind in Iraq, which conscience demands that we consider.
In that spirit, today I am introducing the Iraq Reconstruction Improvement Act – a comprehensive piece of legislation to fix our rapidly failing reconstruction effort. This program has been beset by gross corruption and massive American and Iraqi bureaucratic confusion. The Iraqi people, hoping that the fall of Saddam would bring peace and prosperity to their country, have instead been handed half-built hospitals, failed water projects, and a power grid that is more off than on.
My legislation aims to improve our reconstruction program in Iraq by boosting our efforts to stamp out corruption. It will improve transparency and accountability for the use of American taxpayer dollars. It will also address the plight of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons, and augment our long-term capacity to prevent further reconstruction debacles.
In Jordan alone, there are some three-quarters of a million Iraqi refugees. Jordan is a poor country, it is a small country, and it has most limited resources. And absorbing over 750,000 Iraqi refugees is beginning to be an unmanageable problem.
The key to reconstruction success, as outlined by the Iraq Study Group and the Special Inspector General, lies in building Iraq’s capacity to respond to the needs of its people. I couldn’t agree more. That is why my legislation provides technical assistance to Iraqi ministries to improve the administration of reconstruction programs, including programs that provide basic services to the Iraqi people.
Improving our capacity to oversee and monitor reconstruction efforts in Iraq is equally as critical. Therefore, my legislation extends the authority of the Special Inspector General and provides assistance to build the capacity of the Inspectors General in the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The more eyes we have on reconstruction in Iraq, the less likely it will be that American taxpayer dollars will continue to go to waste and fraud.
While we can debate about Iraq’s political and military quandary ad infinitum and ad nauseum, one thing remains indisputable – our reconstruction effort will fail unless it takes a new and innovative approach. My legislation aims to achieve just that.
I look forward to working closely with my friend, the Ranking Member of the Committee, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, and my other colleagues on the committee, to ensure that this new initiative enjoys strong, bi-partisan support.
And now I turn to my good friend and distinguished colleague from Florida for her opening comments.