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Rough Beginning at Oversight Committee

Top Panel Members Issa and Cummings Can’t Seem to Agree on Anything

Newly minted Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings are having a hard time hiding their antagonism toward one another.

And the panel has barely gotten started.

Tensions have flared between the California Republican and Maryland Democrat over the past month on everything from whether the minority will be allowed to provide opening statements at hearings and have input over subpoenas to whether Democrats will be allowed to call witnesses.

The battles have largely played out in letters between the two lawmakers and through the media. The latest salvo came earlier this week when Cummings tried to circumvent Issa by trying to obtain materials from industry groups that the chairman declined to immediately share with minority staff.

Cummings sent letters to more than 100 organizations requesting copies of their responses to Issa about which administration regulations impede job growth.

Cummings said in a statement that withholding committee records is a violation of House rules and that his latest appeal could have been avoided.

“I fully support bipartisan efforts to improve federal regulations to increase job growth while preserving the core safeguards these regulations were intended to protect,” Cummings said. “But since Chairman Issa has refused to provide Democrats with copies of the industry responses he has received to date, we have no choice but to request them ourselves.”

Issa, who has only chaired the panel for a few weeks, has said that he is committed to sharing documents but that Cummings’ demands are inconsistent with the precedent Democrats set when they were in charge. He plans to release the documents and his staff’s analysis by Feb. 11.

Longtime observers of the Oversight Committee say sparring between the top two panel Members is less about process and more about partisanship. The panel is charged with overseeing the actions of the administration, pitting itself directly against President Barack Obama.

While Issa has served as the top Republican on the panel since 2008, this is his first turn leading the committee. He has set an aggressive agenda: calling for hearings seven days a week while also moving to aggressively investigate Obama’s signature health care reform law and federal stimulus program.

Cummings is also feeling out his role as the leading Democrat on the committee. The veteran Marylander leapfrogged two more senior Members of his party, including former Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), for the ranking member slot. In taking on the job, Cummings tapped a seasoned investigative hand. Earlier this year, he brought on David Rapallo, the top attorney to Obama’s National Security Council, to be the Democratic staff director. Rapallo formerly served for 11 years as a minority subcommittee director for the committee, and later as chief investigative counsel for Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), who was then the panel’s top Democrat.

Cummings and Issa’s relationship isn’t uncommon for a panel charged with oversight, particularly in a period of divided government. Ethics lawyers say the panel has gone through some highly contentious periods, including when Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Waxman served as its top Members.

“This is a committee where the two parties don’t talk to each other very much and are in a state of near continuous combat,” ethics attorney Robert Kelner of Covington & Burling said.

Still, Kelner said it’s important to recognize that “a lot of this crossfire generates heat and light, but it doesn’t really fundamentally affect what goes on behind the scenes in the course of the committee’s investigations.”

House Republicans defend Issa, arguing that Cummings was hand-picked to serve as the top Democrat on the panel to try to block him from going after the Obama administration.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said it is clear that Cummings was put in the role to be an “obstructionist.”
“So far, Mr. Cummings has not thrown any olive branches,” Hill said. “He’s been extremely critical of the committee … From Mr. Issa’s perspective, I think the question is whether or not Mr. Cummings truly wants to be bipartisan or to be an obstructionist.”

Meanwhile, Cummings said in a statement that he wants to find ways for the two men to work together.

“It is my sincere hope that Chairman Issa and I can work together on job creation, combating the foreclosure crisis and other issues facing the American people,” Cummings said.

But if the past few weeks are any indication, there won’t be many areas of bipartisanship.

The two Members are preparing for larger substantive battles as the committee moves forward, including inquiries into the role Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in the foreclosure crisis and the failure of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to agree on the reasons for the market meltdown.

“[They] are laying down markers for how they intend to fight,” said Robert Raben, a lawyer who represents clients with issues before the committee. “Dispute about process and substance will escalate as the majority begins to use its subpoena authority … and it is going to be for very high stakes.”

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