The Overseer

October 20, 2011

Rep. Darrell Issa has mastered the pitch for the GOP’s oversight efforts. Now he’s reaching for a tougher challenge: getting people to take him seriously.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Standing in the speaker’s lobby off the House floor during votes, Rep. Darrell Issa brushed aside criticism that he was a publicity hound: “I’m a salesman,” the California Republican told National Journal with a shrug. “What I’m selling is the awareness of a product.”

The “product” is the oversight of the federal government, and the pitch is that Issa’s investigations will root out inefficiencies and malfeasance in every corner of the Obama administration. The pitchman is Issa, an ambitious six-term lawmaker who took the gavel at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January when Republicans regained control of the House.

By one yardstick, Issa has had huge successes. The media-savvy Republican has carved out one of the highest profiles in Congress and fed a stream of stories that raised questions about how the administration does business. He’s omnipresent on television and radio, from The Rush Limbaugh Show to HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. His press office is one of the largest and most aggressive on Capitol Hill, rivaling that of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Issa was an early and enthusiastic adopter of social media. He was rated the 12th-most influential member of Congress on Twitter in a 2010 study by Hewlett-Packard. The Darrell Issa YouTube channel has 353 videos, all posted since early 2009, and the Oversight and Government Reform panel’s YouTube channel has 1,589 videos of committee meetings, media appearances by GOP members, and informational pieces about the panel’s jurisdiction. Issa is a one-man generator of headlines, using the leverage of his committee’s subpoena power and his provocative rhetoric to annoy the Obama administration in particular and Democrats in general.

For all the hoopla, though, Issa acknowledges that he hasn’t hit many home runs. “We have at any given time an awful lot of success stories, but, as you’ve found out, most of them are small,” Issa told NJ. Ten months into his chairmanship, it is clear that Issa wants to be taken seriously by more than friendly Fox News audiences.

He worships his Republican predecessor, former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who was less outwardly partisan and known for his dogged attention to detail. Issa even praised Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the liberal but tenacious former Oversight chairman who built a reputation as a fearsome investigator and is now ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I idolize [Davis],” Issa said when asked to reflect on his role models. “He cares about policy; he cares about systems. He understands, and took the time to understand, the technology and efficiency. At the same time, Henry Waxman had a safe Democratic seat and was absolutely unafraid to go after anyone at any time for any reason. The blending of those two has power.”

By that yardstick, Issa lags far behind. His biggest success so far is his investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, a covert gunrunning operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that sent illegally purchased firearms to Mexico in an effort to build a case against the nation’s organized-crime gangs. ATF lost track of most of the guns once they got to Mexico, and they were used in a number of crimes there as well as in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Issa’s hearings revealed significant internal dissent over ATF’s tactics; they also highlighted how poorly ATF, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Agency shared information. In the midst of the inquiry, both the ATF’s acting director and the U.S. attorney in Arizona resigned. Issa’s staff also uncovered a memo indicating that senior officials at the Justice Department had at least mentioned Operation Fast and Furious to Attorney General Eric Holder much earlier than Holder had told Congress he had learned about it.

But in his increasingly strident pursuit of Holder, Issa is wagering a fair amount of his credibility. Earlier this month, Holder publicly refuted Issa’s contention that he hadn’t told the truth to Congress. “My testimony was truthful and accurate, and I have been consistent on this point throughout,” Holder wrote in a letter to congressional leaders on Oct. 7. Issa responded with a scathing letter: “At best, [your letter] indicates negligence and incompetence in your duties as attorney general. At worst, it places your credibility in serious doubt,” he wrote.

Days later, Issa escalated the fight by announcing that the committee would subpoena all Justice Department communications about Operation Fast and Furious. “Top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Holder, know more about Operation Fast and Furious than they have publicly acknowledged,” the chairman asserted in a statement on Oct. 12.

If the pursuit of Holder turns up nothing, Issa will likely lose some credibility and make it easier for Democrats to dismiss his many other investigations with a wave of “There he goes again.”

Issa could use a big score. Beyond its investigation of Fast and Furious, his committee hasn’t recorded any big hits despite firing—or misfiring—at almost anything that moves. Earlier this year, Issa investigated the Homeland Security Department over its handling of document requests under the Freedom of Information Act. He asserted that the department’s management of FOIA requests was politicized and “reeks of a Nixonian enemies list.” He also charged that the wrongdoing occurred at a “high level and [was] very serious,” an insinuation that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was involved. But the investigation never bore out those charges. Both the committee’s findings and an inspector general’s report found no illegalities and concluded that the Homeland Security Department had ultimately granted all of the FOIA requests. Nevertheless, Issa defended the inquiry and said it revealed at least “bad behavior.”

Issa blames the false starts in part on obstruction by committee Democrats, who have taken issue with his agenda and paths of inquiry. But Issa accepted some of the blame for himself.

“I believe we can do better in the next six months than we did in the first six,” he acknowledged at a June 22 hearing to review the committee’s activities. “This is our watch. It’s our time, and we have to do more. I’m a brand-new chairman. This is a brand-new majority. We didn’t do as well as we could have. We want to do better.”

IF IT’S HOT, CHASE IT

If it’s true that success in Washington comes from under-promising and over-delivering, Issa has done exactly what a politician shouldn’t do.

When he became chairman at the beginning of the year, he laid out a sprawling list of top priorities: investigating the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the mortgage crisis; digging into the political feud between Republicans and Democrats at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission; identifying $200 billion in government waste; examining corruption in Afghanistan; investigating food and drug safety; and probing WikiLeaks’ divulging of classified documents.

All that would have been a reach, especially because many of the targets had already been picked over. But it was just the start. Issa quickly added many more targets, from the cosmic to the obscure. Among them: government regulations that business groups say hinder job creation; the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program; the Security and Exchange Commission’s incompetence at uncovering Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; the National Labor Relations Board’s confrontation with Boeing; the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulation; the Obama administration’s role in influencing the Federal Communications Commission’s regulations on network neutrality; the Transportation Department’s new fuel-economy standards; and Countrywide Financial’s VIP loan program, among others.

To call it a scattershot agenda would be an understatement. Investigations require time, focus, and patience. Issa, however, doesn’t want to exercise oversight on any one thing—he wants to examine everything. Many of his targets—such as TARP—had already been investigated for years. Others, such as the political feuding at the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, didn’t even involve a mystery: Commission members had openly described their bitter disagreements. Still others, such as the crusade against government regulation, were hopelessly broad.

Allies attribute the problems to normal growing pains for an ambitious chairman who had to adjust to a majority mind-set. Detractors attribute the problems to a partisan lawmaker bent on a single goal: sticking it to the Obama administration.

Jeffrey Solsby, an Issa spokesman, said that the scale of the committee’s interests was purposeful, based on a macro theory of how to conduct oversight. “If you’re looking at this as a business, how do you put processes in place to protect things or make things function better?” Solsby said. “That’s a much more macro view, where in the past the committee tended to focus a light on much more smaller problems that may have blown up into bigger things.”

Frederick Hill, another spokesman, said that the committee’s accomplishments ought to be measured by more than the number of bombshells uncovered. The panel’s extensive hearings on government regulation, he argues, probably played a role in the White House’s decision to postpone a tightening of ozone regulations.

“I think it has clearly struck a chord with the problems House Republicans in particular have tried to highlight about a misguided approach to regulations by this administration that’s hurting job-creation efforts,” Hill said, in regard to the Oversight panel’s hearings that have examined the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations and how they affect small businesses. “It’s clear that we have affected a national narrative.”

Perhaps, but that’s a gauzy influence rather than a concrete result. The committee has yet to issue any bipartisan reports, except for a mandatory semiannual clerical report in June. Republicans have issued nine staff reports on their own, but all were produced without any cooperation from Democrats. That’s in contrast to Issa’s mentor, Tom Davis, who teamed with Democrats on issues such as steroid use in baseball. It’s also in contrast to another of Issa’s heroes, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is widely viewed as running one of the top investigative teams on the Hill.

“Issa so far has failed to demonstrate a real Grassley-type ‘dig-deep-and-find-the-bad-guys’ approach to his investigations,” said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. Canterbury praised Issa for some of his legislative efforts, including those to pass the Data Act, a bill aimed at creating a system to track and publish data on all federal spending. However, she said, much of Issa’s focus had either been on battles with smoke but no fire or on fights with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

“That’s been disappointing, particularly given the size of his staff and the talk of doing real oversight and working with whistle-blowers,” Canterbury said. “We haven’t seen real fruits from their labor yet.”

STRAIGHT SHOOTING OR SHOOTING FROM THE HIP?

The Oversight and Government Reform panel employs some 80 staffers, including a dozen investigators and a half-dozen people in the press shop. Aside from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Issa is arguably the highest-profile chairman in the House, and that has helped make him the target of liberals, who have launched such websites as IssaWatch.org and IssaOversight.org that breathlessly catalog his every move and misstep.

The media-oriented nature of Issa’s operation has also sparked skepticism among Congress’s investigator class. “They’ve got a mixed report card,” said one veteran Republican aide who works on congressional investigations and requested anonymity so as not to affect his boss’s relationship with the Oversight panel. “Generally, their success has been when they’ve partnered with Grassley’s office, [which] … brings a seriousness and a methodology and an ethic to the investigation that’s beyond just headline-grabbing.… The first thing you do when you’re going to investigate something is, you don’t write a press release.”

Indeed, Grassley’s staff handed off the investigative lead on Operation Fast and Furious to Issa because Republicans are in the minority in the Senate and didn’t have Issa’s subpoena power.

But the House chairman’s flamboyant tactics raised questions about his judgment. To bolster the case against ATF, his staff released an insufficiently redacted bureau report that revealed confidential information about a person still under investigation and about court-approved wiretaps and surveillance efforts.

How much damage the breach did to the ongoing criminal investigation is unclear. But Justice Department officials pounced on the goof, implying that Issa’s investigation was jeopardizing their work.

“The committee’s oversight activities in this matter have already risked undermining, albeit unintentionally, the independence, integrity, and effectiveness of the department’s criminal investigations,” Assistant Attorney Ronald Welch charged at a hearing in June.

Issa didn’t back down. “Some [critics], which are Democrats, are disingenuous,” he asserted, noting that only one gunrunner had been charged with a significant crime, everyone else was out on bail, and many of them would serve no more than one year if convicted. “You can’t call that a serious ongoing [criminal] investigation in that sense, and that’s pretty clear,” Issa told NJ.

A SHORTAGE OF SMOKING GUNS

Although the consequences of Issa’s investigation are still unfolding, the inquiry has highlighted two prevailing themes of his chairmanship: He is dogged about searching when he thinks he has spotted wrongdoing, and his aim is sometimes off. “He’s a vacuum, trying to suck up every little thing in sight to see what sticks,” complained one senior administration official. “There is no real substance to it; it’s all about the politics. It’s not about trying to affect policy. We are fighting this fight in the press every day.”

There’s no doubt that Issa is intensely partisan, but that was also true of Waxman when he chaired the Oversight panel. A more accurate description of Issa is that he seems like a heat-seeking missile that often ends up hitting campfires.

That seemed to be the case when he announced plans to investigate the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the bipartisan panel that Congress created to produce a report on the causes of the meltdown. The panel became deadlocked between Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic report assigned major blame to Wall Street firms, mortgage lenders, and hapless financial regulators. The Republicans argued that the case was more complicated and stemmed, at least in part, from government policies.

It was a familiar partisan feud, but nobody on either side was accusing anybody of unethical or improper behavior. They simply disagreed about the narrative and ultimately produced two separate reports. Issa barreled ahead with plans for a high-profile hearing, then abruptly canceled it three days before it was supposed to take place. “There was nothing new,” said one Republican lawmaker on the panel. Frederick Hill, Issa’s top aide, insists that isn’t the case. “I have every expectation it’s going to be rescheduled for some point,” he told NJ.

The role of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is particularly partisan when a different party holds the White House. Waxman wielded the gavel with relish when George W. Bush was president, as did former Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., during the Clinton administration. Davis demonstrated that his committee could examine wrongdoings in his own party, as it did during his probe of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Davis and Waxman, who alternately served as chairman and ranking member together, enjoyed a relationship that often allowed them and their staffs to transcend partisanship on high-profile investigations. Their joint efforts included investigations into the use of steroids in baseball; the Bush administration’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; the Army’s cover-up of how friendly fire killed Pat Tillman, the U.S. Army Ranger and former NFL star; and the Valerie Plame leak. By contrast, Issa has yet to find much common ground with the committee’s ranking Democrat.

At the start of the congressional session in January, Cummings sent Issa a sharply worded seven-page letter predicting that the chairman would use the committee “for ill-advised purposes.” The Democrat voiced concerns that Issa’s broadsides against the Obama administration before he had even taken the gavel “risk bringing our committee into disrepute” and had “resulted in the expenditure of large amounts of time and resources on little or no evidence.” Cummings went on to blast Issa’s media operation, which had produced Web videos with committee resources that were “one-sided and sometimes juvenile advocacy pieces.” One video, Health Care Hangover, opens with the sound of vomiting.

Some of Cummings’s concerns turned out to be accurate. In the letter, he questioned the actions of Issa’s spokesman at the time, Kurt Bardella, for his comments disparaging the press that covers them and then devoting “an unprecedented level of resources to your personal reputation.” In March, Bardella was fired in an inside-the-Beltway controversy over leaking an untold number of reporters’ e-mails to New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich. To the consternation of committee Democrats, Issa rehired Bardella in late summer to work for the panel’s general counsel as an “adviser” to the chairman.

It was the first of two controversies involving The New York Times this year. The second came in August, when the newspaper ran a front-page story examining the links between Issa’s congressional work and his myriad business ties. Issa and his staff reacted with a weeks-long public assault against The Times and the story’s reporter, Eric Lichtblau. In missives sent out on committee letterhead, Issa’s people accused Lichtblau of lying, plagiarism, and negligence. The Times ultimately ran four factual corrections, but it stood by the story’s broader point.

The episode fueled Democrats’ suspicion about Issa’s style and his priorities, and it has helped reinforce a mutual disinterest in working together. “Basically, I’m pushing for those issues that are going to uplift the lives of the American people at these difficult times,” Cummings said. “There’s nothing personal about it; it’s about the agenda items and how we are using our time. Time is short…. I think he needs to look at the things we are addressing.”

At a full committee meeting on June 22, Issa conceded that the panel had not hit all of its marks. In the first half of the session, the committee held 64 oversight hearings, a sizable number but well short of what Issa had told Politico he wanted to accomplish: “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.”

From the vantage point of House GOP leaders, Issa is doing just fine. “I think everyone was unsure as to what to expect at the beginning of the year,” one senior GOP aide said. “But we’ve all been pretty pleased with what he’s done so far.” The aide said that Issa has been good at avoiding the problems that give party leaders the most heartburn: turf wars with other committee chairmen; stepping off the party line; or going rogue on policy. Contrary to Issa’s reputation as a media hound, he has mostly deferred to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on what is arguably the sexiest investigative topic of the year: Solyndra, the bankrupt solar-panel company with close ties to supporters of President Obama that got more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees.

One Republican on the Oversight panel, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said that Issa is growing into his chairmanship and has the loyalty of his GOP committee members. “He’s been good. He’s getting better. And I think he’ll be a lot better next year,” the member said.

Issa does seem to be turning slightly away from headline-grabbing scandals and toward less-glamorous but important bills under his jurisdiction: a comprehensive reform of the U.S. Postal Service; enactment of the Data Act to increase transparency in federal spending; and marking up of legislation to increase protections for whistle-blowers.

All three are important, and moving them across the finish line would be notable achievements for the chairman and the oversight community. Outside watchdogs are particularly hungry for action on the Data Act and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which has been stalled for nearly a decade.

Canterbury, at the Project on Government Oversight, said that watchdog groups have been especially pleased that Issa has pushed so hard to pass the Data Act. That bill, she said, would be “the biggest game-changer in government accountability passed by this Congress.” The whistle-blower bill faces a tougher road. Despite Issa’s pledge for quick action, the committee has not made it a priority. “The nature of the beast is, you work it with everybody, you check all the boxes,” Issa said. “Once we move it in committee, we expect to move it very quickly.”

The chairman is mindful of time. He said he constantly reminds people that presidents stay for only four or eight years, and Cabinet officials remain on average for two or three, but “the bureaucracy outlasts” them all. Under the rules of the House Republican Conference, Issa himself faces a six-year term limit as chairman, and he seems to be thinking hard about how to build a legacy.

“Socrates was a gadfly—I’m not being sarcastic,” he said. “Socrates was probably the first person to be called a gadfly and embraced it and said, ‘You’ll miss me.’ Yes, our job is to annoy by pointing out things such as when the emperor has no clothes and then, once revealed, … we have the responsibility to point it out and if possible shame the administration, any administration, into real reforms.”

The clock is ticking.

(This story appeared in the October 20, 2011 edition of National Journal magazine.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: