Rep. Darrell Issa, poised to chair the panel with the power to investigate the Obama administration, is ready to drop the issue he once called an “impeachable” offense and “Obama’s Watergate.”
Six months ago, the California Republican was hammering President Barack Obama for offering Rep. Joe Sestak an administration job in exchange for dropping out of the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, and was using his role as House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member to keep the matter in the news.
But an Issa spokesman told Roll Call that revisiting the Sestak incident would be a mistake because it could be seen as “a partisan witch hunt.”
Issa was among the chief critics of the incident, which involved the White House tapping President Bill Clinton to offer the Pennsylvania Democrat an administration job if he would drop his Senate primary bid against Sen. Arlen Specter. Sestak dismissed Clinton’s overtures and ultimately went on to defeat Specter in the campaign. Sestak fell to former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) in the general election.
But Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said Friday that the committee has “no intention” of issuing subpoenas for Clinton, Sestak or anyone else involved; he said similar job offers happen all the time.
“This isn’t isolated to the Obama administration. This goes back to everyone since Andrew Jackson. If you’re going to go down that road, you have to go back to every administration,” he said.
But Issa’s campaign sent out an e-mail in May saying the Clinton job offer could amount to three felony charges of bribery and corruption, and he blasted the White House for “arrogantly and wrongly” assuming the matter could be swept under the rug.
“This may be the way business is done in Chicago, but it’s not the way things are done in our nation’s [C]apitol and I am intent on getting to the bottom of this,” he said at the time.
Reflecting on the panel’s plans, Bardella said investigating the matter might look nefarious at a time when people want to focus on the economy and job creation.
Issa appears to have other plans for oversight.
Issa said in an early Wednesday conference call that he “absolutely” plans to beef up the committee’s use of subpoenas when he takes on the expected role of chairman in January. Specifically, he wants to grant all 74 inspectors general in the executive branch with the subpoena power to investigate any federal program. Currently, only one has such authority.
“We shouldn’t expect IGs to operate without authority,” Issa said during the call. That power means inspectors general can gain “all access” and have “reasonable freedom from being fired” as they conduct their investigations into government fraud, waste and abuse.
Outgoing Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) warned Friday that Issa needs to focus on the issues that voters “overwhelmingly indicated” are their top priorities in the election: job creation, wasteful spending and the economy.
“Democrats on this committee will strongly reject any effort to use the committee as a partisan political vehicle against the administration. It is my hope to work with the incoming chairman on issues important to the American people, instead of focusing on a divisive partisan political agenda,” he said.
Analysts say the Obama White House needs to be ready for dealing with the Oversight panel not only run by the other party, but run by Issa, an aggressive Member who has been a thorn in Obama’s side even as a ranking member.
“Mr. Issa has been quite vocal in terms of his intention to engage in heavy oversight,” said Ted Hester, a partner at King & Spalding who has worked on Congressional oversight investigations for 25 years. He pointed to a September committee staff report put out by Issa and said the title says it all: “Constitutional Obligations: Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch.”
“This is not a bluff. I think he will very seriously go ahead and pursue a strategy of having regular oversight hearings. And my impression is he will have the support” of GOP leaders such as presumptive Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), he said.
Hester emphasized that while Issa may be the most vocal of incoming chairmen about his plans, there are several other committees with the ability to conduct executive branch reviews. Issa may defer to Energy and Commerce to dig into health care issues or to Financial Services to review financial institutions, he said.
In addition, a beefed-up oversight process “can really require a lot of time and attention for the same policymakers who would prefer to be spending their time on legislation,” which means Obama’s legislative plans may be slowed, Hester said. “The administration could not be looking forward to it, but they recognize that the Republicans won the House and it’s something they have to face.”
It remains to be seen how aggressive GOP chairmen will be in their oversight activities. But the White House appears to have done little to prepare for what could be an onslaught of subpoenas.
“We will of course support Congress in meeting its legitimate oversight responsibilities. It’s our hope that the administration and Congress can work together to ensure that this important function is not abused to score political points or for other improper purposes,” a White House official said.
Bardella said it is too early to tell how the committee’s relationship with the White House will develop.
“Everyone is trying to feel each other out,” he said. “If the White House doesn’t cooperate with us, things will obviously be a lot more acrimonious.”