Darrell Issa has launched inquiries into the economic stimulus program, the Obama administration’s threats to religious freedom, whether officials used private Google e-mail accounts on government computers and why the FCC chairman visited the White House so frequently. He’s also kept tabs on the Solyndra bankruptcy and scandals at the General Services Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Secret Service.
But what the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ultimately might be most remembered for is what happened in his hearing room Wednesday.
After an almost six-hour hearing, the GOP-controlled panel voted to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of the committee, capping a 16-month investigation into an issue few Americans understand, but many have likely heard of — “Operation Fast and Furious.”
The investigation has earned Issa and the oversight panel wide news coverage, disdain from Democratic supporters of Holder who claim Issa allowed the investigation to devolve into a personal attack on the attorney general, and acclaim from conservatives eager to find any fault with President Obama and his administration.
Issa seized on the Fast and Furious case only after Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, failed to get answers from the Justice Department and White House about the operation, named after the popular movie series, which was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011. Devoting considerable money and manpower to the probe, Issa made use of his subpoena power, an investigative tool Grassley lacked in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Issa has also made use of his subpoena power in much less notable cases, issuing more than 700 formal requests for information and roughly two dozen subpoenas since taking over the committee last year. Virtually every inquiry — large or small — has been followed up with press releases from his aggressive press staff.
As 2chambers first noted in February, for every request for information that leads to a public hearing or legislation, administration supporters and critics alike complain privately that many of Issa’s inquiries result in no follow-ups, no hearings or no reports. Essentially, some complain, there have been too many instances in which there was more show than substance.
Issa defended his strategy in an interview with 2chambers earlier this year, saying that he’s “a jack-of-all-trades and a master of as many as I could be. I didn’t come to Congress for one thing. I came to try to leave our country better by being here, so I’m never apologetic for taking on as many diverse issues as I can.”
In February, several lawmakers, congressional aides and Obama administration officials told 2chambers that the Fast and Furious investigation likely would become — as some put it — “Issa’s great hit,” or the one investigation that yielded Issa the most widespread attention. But Issa suggested otherwise when asked Wednesday whether he agreed that Fast and Furious was his committee’s most notable achievement to date.
“I would hope we’re most remembered for, on a bipartisan basis, passing the DATA Act out of this committee and then passing it out of the House unanimously,” he said after the hearing. “I think that the transparency — the other works that our committee has done — are the core of our committee’s obligation. Obviously, we have an obligation in a situation like this, but our high point was what we did together, not what happened here today.”
The DATA Act — a bill Issa regularly cites when discussing his committee work — is considered at the heart of the oversight panel’s work on government reform and management. The bipartisan proposal establishes new government-wide financial reporting standards by requiring federal agencies to report all spending information to a centralized Web site.
The bill was going nowhere this Spring until late April, when GSA revealed the details of its Las Vegas conference spending scandal. Seizing on congressional outrage, Issa held hearings on the scandal and added language to the DATA Act that would require federal agencies to slash spending on conferences by 20 percent. The bill ultimately passed the House unanimously, but only because of the conference spending provisions.
Issa may want to be remembered as a serious, nonpartisan leader of government reform efforts, but Wednesday’s contempt vote — and the possibility of a full House vote on the matter next week — likely will cement his status as a partisan antagonist in the eyes of Democrats and a hero to conservative Republicans — whether he likes it or not.
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