In Race for Oversight Chairmanship, Turner Lays Out Different Direction

Posted July 14, 2014 at 4:01am
turner005 071014 445x295 In Race for Oversight Chairmanship, Turner Lays Out Different Direction
Turner wants to be Issa’s successor as Oversight and Government Reform chairman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Under California Republican Darrell Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been the Obama administration’s No. 1 enemy on Capitol Hill, with high-profile hearings on everything from Benghazi to the IRS, to Operation Fast and Furious.

That kind of oversight is part of the committee’s job, according to Rep. Michael R. Turner, an Ohio Republican who is one of the leading candidates to succeed the term-limited Issa as chairman.

But the panel known on the Hill simply as “Oversight” also has the word “reform” in its title, Turner noted. And that aspect of the committee’s mission, he said, will be more of a focus if he takes over the chairmanship.

“I enjoy fixing things,” the six-term congressman said during a sit-down interview in his Rayburn office on July 10. And beyond government waste and inefficiency, one of the things he wants to fix is a committee that “can use some reform itself.”

“It certainly has done the pursue-the-scandal-of-the-day with the Obama administration,” Turner said, “but we need to hold government accountable and we need to find solutions for reform.”

The 54-year-old lawyer said the committee is one of best places to address wasteful government spending, adding, “I think the Oversight Committee is as important as the Budget Committee.” He also carefully criticized the direction the panel has taken under Issa.

Turner acknowledged it has been a formidable administration watchdog, and that a major part of Oversight’s role is to hold the White House accountable.

“But we have to look beyond those to how do we look at real solutions,” Turner said, noting he felt investigations had come to dominate the committee’s efforts “to the exclusion of everything else.”

Turner knows some members are looking for an attack-dog chairman. But the best way to score points on the White House, he said, is to take on the administration in a serious manner.

“I think to hold them accountable, you have to do it well and thought-out and sustained, and with credibility, and other initiatives besides just poking the administration,” he said.

Turner said he wants to put an end to the divisiveness that has come to define the committee — especially the openly partisan rancor that has led to sometimes explosive clashes between Republicans and Democrats.

“The conflict can be substantive,” he said. “But I think sometimes the way issues have been handled have caused more of the conflict than actually the conflict itself.”

Case in point: When Issa cut the microphone on the panel’s ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. Turner said he would have let Cummings say his piece.

“It’s not for the chairman to intervene or interfere,” Turner said, noting that there isn’t even a perceived conflict unless there are two members “going off” on each other.

A former mayor of Dayton — a city that he’s quick to note isn’t exactly a Republican stronghold — Turner points to his record running a city and his 11 years in Congress as proof that he works with Democrats. Specifically, he cited measures pertaining to the military’s handling of sexual assaults.

As chairman of House Armed Services’ most sought-after subcommittee, Tactical Air and Land Forces, Turner has had a direct hand in shaping military policies.

Turner plans to remain on Armed Services, even if he becomes the next Oversight chairman. His chief competition for the Oversight gavel is Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Chaffetz’s big argument for the role, it seems, is his singular focus on the committee.

But Turner points out that Oversight and Government Reform is a hybrid committee, and that it needs to conduct investigations but also do “substantive work.”

“And perhaps that’s because I have two feet: one in Armed Services and one in Government Reform,” he said.

Turner’s tenure on Armed Services, despite a record of working with Democrats on sexual assault issues, also makes it clear that he has a partisan side. There is perhaps no bigger critic of Obama’s “hot mic” incident with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev than Turner. When he was the chairman of the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Turner took every opportunity to remind anyone he could of Obama’s promise to the Russian that he’d have “more flexibility” to deal with missile defense after his re-election.

And though Turner said he wants to work with Cummings, he said he doesn’t think he’ll have time to visit the Democrat’s Baltimore district — something Chaffetz has already done. (Turner did say he would invite Cummings to his district in Ohio, though.)

Turner, who has made a steady climb up the Republican ladder since his days as a member of Roll Call’s Obscure Caucus, firmly believes he will be the next Oversight chairman. “At this point, I have significant and strong support on the Steering Committee,” he said, referring to the panel that decides chairmanships and committee assignments.

Perhaps his strongest ally is a fellow Ohio Republican, Speaker John A. Boehner. Boehner formally has five votes on the Steering Committee, though his influence usually allows him to play kingmaker. He will almost certainly stay neutral publicly, but Turner probably wouldn’t go for the gavel if he didn’t think he could win the speaker’s support.

A senior leadership aide told CQ Roll Call that Turner is “pretty effective at quietly building support” and said he has done more work with Steering Committee members in the past than Chaffetz.

That’s not to say any candidacy is a lock.

Besides Chaffetz, who has made no secret of his ambitions for the chairmanship, John L. Mica of Florida is also vying for the position. Mica technically has the seniority, but his former stint as Transportation and Infrastructure chairman could lead Steering Committee members to decide it’s someone else’s turn. Second in seniority is Turner.

“I’m actively pursuing this with very strong support from the Steering Committee, and I think it’s because they look at my experience and what needs to occur at the committee,” Turner said. ”I think our conference agrees that the Oversight and Government Reform Committee needs to be taken in a different direction.

“The committee has atrophied, and it needs to be fired up,” he said.