When Rep. Darrell Issa assumed the role of chief watchdog of the Obama administration, both sides of the ideological spectrum had big expectations.
Liberals thought the Republican from California would be a media-hungry inquisitor who would stop at nothing to embarrass President Obama. And some conservatives believed he would quickly uncover high-level corruption that must be lurking just behind the White House gates.
Six months into Issa’s tenure as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, neither side’s predictions have proved quite right — although they still disagree about whether he’s doing a good job. And the congressman has been surprised by the experience.
“There’s more job than I expected,” Issa said in an interview last week. “With the limited resources that we have . . . we’ve done about 80 hearings and forums [but] what you find is it’s not even half of what we should have looked into or what we should do. We have a huge backlog.”
Issa helped set the bar high, saying in early January that Obama’s was “one of the most corrupt administrations” of modern times. If that were true, it seemed to follow, scandals should be easy to find.
That has not been the case, though Issa is particularly proud of the work his committee has done on Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial venture by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that targeted Mexican gun traffickers but has been linked to the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Issa has also proposed a broad overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service that would eliminate Saturday mail delivery. And he has pushed to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in workforce costs across the federal government.
“Issa’s style is much more focused than the media perceived it would be. And the White House wanted to make him into something he isn’t,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who chairs an oversight subcommittee.
Although the committee has produced few major investigative breakthroughs, McHenry said it has been hitting “the singles and doubles” that could eventually build into something larger.
“Expectations that you would have an immediate ‘aha’ moment are removed from reality,” he said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), another subcommittee head, said “there’s a learning curve” for a new chairman but predicted that many of the investigations the committee has underway would bear real fruit by next year.
Democrats paint a different picture.
“Frankly, I think the jury is still out on what kind of chairman he wants to be,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), a member of the oversight panel. “At times we see the statesman Darrell Issa and other times he has reverted to the very petty, partisan Darrell Issa.”
During Issa’s short tenure, Democrats have compiled a long list of complaints, including the topics he chooses to investigate as well as the way he handles subpoenas and minority witnesses.
They think Issa suffers not from a lack of resources but a lack of focus. He doesn’t have to investigate everything, they argue, and would be better served diving into the details of a few major issues rather than flitting around a larger universe of topics.
“When I read the [mission] of the committee, I agree with every word of it. I just want to do it,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, said, referring to the committee’s broad investigative mandate. He added that the panel could be much more effective if Issa sought the cooperation of Democrats rather than striking out on his own.
Issa disputed that notion, saying that Democrats have been obstructionists.
“It’s for the majority to lead,” he said. “It’s for the minority to ask to be included, to work in an inclusive fashion. . . . My hand is out there and it’s open, but every time we’re doing an investigation which we determine is important, [Democrats] are there saying we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Issa has suffered at least one high-profile embarrassment. In March, he fired spokesman Kurt Bardella after it emerged that Bardella had leaked e-mails from journalists to a New York Times reporter working on a book about the culture of Washington.
The incident shed unflattering light on Bardella’s hyper-aggressive efforts to draw media attention to his boss, including the aide’s acknowledgment to the New Yorker magazine that his goal was “to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure.” Coincidentally or not, Issa has been less visible since then.
“I certainly thought he was going to be very aggressive and partisan. He was looking for news attention,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the oversight panel. “But he has lowered his profile. . . . I thought he would be a lot more visible than he has been to date.”
Issa said he has deliberately sought less attention for himself all year to draw more for the work of his subcommittee chairmen. But that doesn’t mean he has become shy.
“If we have an opportunity to drive the message, we go where we can drive the message,” he said. “That’s not going to change.”
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