Last week, while the nation’s attention was focused on the humanitarian crisis on our southern border or on the legal farce that is Speaker Boehner’s impending lawsuit against President Obama, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) informed the White House he wanted to go fishing. When he dropped a subpoena on the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach (OPSO) on July 11, the White House counsel offered Issa a briefing on “how OPSO is complying with the law governing political activity by federal employees, including the Hatch Act.” He accepted.
But when the appointed hour came today, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee didn’t bother to show up.
A Democratic source told me that White House lawyers in charge of Hatch Act compliance answered all the questions (45 in total) posed by committee staff during the 75-minute meeting. “Guess who didn’t even bother to show up? One guess. Correct, no Issa,” the source asked and answered before I could answer. “But I do think it’s fairly remarkable,” the Democrat continued. “[considering] Issa wants to be seen as genuinely caring about the issue (and not just cameras), that he didn’t even bother to attend.”
You need to go back to the White House political affairs office under President George W. Bush’s administration to find the source of Issa’s interest. A 2008 oversight committee report showed there were real violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees, particularly executive branch staffers from engaging in partisan political activity.
It finds that the White House used the political affairs office to orchestrate an aggressive strategy to use taxpayer-funded trips to help elect Republican candidates for public office. From January 1, 2006, until the mid-term elections on November 7, 2006, cabinet secretaries and other senior officials traveled to over 300 events recommended by the political affairs office. All of these events were held with Republican candidates, and in most cases, the travel costs were paid for with federal funds.
Obama closed the political affairs office in 2011. Its new incarnation, OPSO, opened this year and was designed to meet Hatch Act compliance, so administration officials have assured Issa. Click this link to see the flurry of letters between Issa and various White House officials including OPSO chief David Simas, chief of staff Denis McDonough, former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and her successor, W. Neil Eggleston. You’ll notice there is not one allegation of wrong-doing in the letters. But there is evidence of a strong desire to go hunting for one by Issa.
It all begins with a letter to McDonough dated March 18, 2014, Issa expresses deep concern about OPSO and the potential that it could lead to “the illegal use of taxpayer funds to support congressional campaigns during the 2014 midterm elections.” Not satisfied by answers from Obama officials, Issa requested a meeting for July 16. But that request became a subpoena a week later, which led to today’s meeting.
Of course, like the Bush administration, the Obama administration is fighting the subpoena. The executive branch has always fought such congressional command performances as a violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers. There is also concern about such requests “would impinge on the President’s need for advice from advisors who will speak candidly and openly with him and among themselves,” as Eggleston argued in his July 10 letter. He also raised another concern about Issa’s fishing expedition with Simas as bait:
With regard to the request at hand for testimony from Mr. Simas, the combination of important Executive Branch confidentiality interests and the corresponding absence of a sufficient predicate need for his testimony presents a further difficulty. It raises the specter that the Committee’s desire for information may not be limited to OPSO’s compliance with the Hatch Act but instead may extend to internal information about Mr. Simas’ analysis and advice on the current political environment and how that informs the President’s development of policy and his other actions. I am certain we both agree that neither political party should have the ability to conduct a partisan inquiry to gain inside information in seeking political advantage; our desire to reach a mutual accommodation must reflect that.
In his letter last week accepting the offer of today’s briefing, Issa wrote, “If, after the briefing, the committee has no outstanding questions for Mr. Simas, I will reconsider whether it is necessary for him to appear at the hearing.” Absent Issa wasn’t satisfied as he announced this afternoon that the subpoena stands. Simas must appear before the committee at 9:30 a.m.
I guess Issa has to find something to do now that he doesn’t have Benghazi to kick around anymore.
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