July 17

I’m always inclined to give House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) the benefit of the doubt. He is a strong leader, and he is doing good work in an important position for his country and his party. Undoubtedly, he can do a lot of things at once. However, I’m bewildered by his pursuit of David Simas, the relatively anonymous director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Chairman Issa subpoenaed Simas to testify in front of the Committee about alleged Hatch Act violations by members of the Obama administration, despite not having any specific evidence against David Simas himself.

Issa seems to be continuing the never-ending dance between the White House and an opposing Congress over whether or not White House staff have to comply with congressional subpoenas. This is well-trodden ground, as is the question of whether or not the White House political office is in compliance with the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain political activity by most government officials. But is this really where we should be focusing our time and energy?

As far back as the 1980s, former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray was answering many of the same questions about the Reagan White House political office that Chairman Issa is now asking about the Obama White House political office. Fair disclosure: I am an alumnus of the Reagan and Bush 41 White House political operations, and I remember repeated inquiries about the role of the political office while I was there. The question of whether the White House political office is lawful and appropriate has been asked and answered in previous decades by a distinguished, bipartisan group of White House counsels. I guess it’s just an irresistible topic.

I don’t know the current White House political director, but as a good Republican, I suspect that David Simas is up to no good. He’s undoubtedly doing things that never would have occurred to the likes of Lee Atwater, Haley Barbour, Ed Rollins, Ken Mehlman or other Republican veterans of the White House political office. Ha!

Sometimes I worry that Republicans are too invested in the moment and they lose sight of the fact that Republicans will be back in the White House someday. Some of the things our House Majority is doing will make it harder for the next Republican president to function in a city where already nothing comes easy. There is little value in making this a high-profile fight.

Everyone agrees that having a transparent government — including the White House — is preferable to a government lacking transparency. So having an official political office at the White House makes sense. That way, an established, formal office can tend to the president’s role as the leader of his party and a partisan in a forthright, concentrated manner. That’s preferable to spreading those responsibilities throughout the White House staff, or even worse, pretending that partisan politics doesn’t happen in the White House at all.

It’s fair to ask if this is a productive use of the Oversight Committee’s ammunition. The White House is fair game, and some light hounding can do some good and keep everybody honest. But in today’s world, it just seems that there are more important and useful things to do.

 

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