In power seat, Issa recasts self as Washington's whistleblower

By Philip Rucker
Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rep. Darrell Issa is finally getting what he has long craved: subpoena power. From his new perch atop the committee responsible for oversight investigations, the California Republican will be able to demand any document he wishes and summon anybody to appear before him - no small thing for a man who recently referred to President Obama as "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times."

Even so, there's one thing Issa says he won't subpoena: Barack Obama's birth certificate.

"Mine is not the committee that asks where the president was born," Issa said in an interview. "It doesn't ask what ministers that he went to think. All that stuff is a distraction. I'm not the overseer of the president."

The minority's gadfly is trying to become the majority's measured man. Issa is working to shed his reputation as an omnipresent, henpecking nuisance whose shouting-forth turns into political headlines. Now empowered to vastly expand scrutiny across the federal government, including the White House, Issa wants to be seen as Washington's whistleblower - not the president's persecutor.

Issa is one of the most anticipated new leaders of a revived Republican Party intent on denying Obama a second term. He will have to balance his own temptation to embarrass the White House against the mission to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse.

If he overreaches, Issa knows his credibility will be zapped.

"Our committee is the committee of stopping government from taking away your liberties, government from exceeding its authority, government from keeping your business from expanding and growing, government from spending your money less efficiently than you would spend it yourself," Issa said.

'An obligation'

Asked whether he would pursue political prosecutions of the administration, Issa said: "I'm sure going to try not to. If there's a violation of the Hatch Act [which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities], my committee will deal with it because we have an obligation, but I'm not getting up every day and trying to create one."

This is a particularly restrained approach coming from a man whose achievements have come with bombast and velocity. After Issa (pronounced EYE-suh) and his brother ran into trouble with the law for car theft (Issa's brother, William, claimed responsibility), Darrell Issa invested all of his savings, about $7,000, in starting a car-alarm business that he grew into a behemoth. His flagship invention, the Viper, features Issa's deep voice ordering would-be thieves to "please step away from the car."

In 2003, when he tired of then-California Gov. Gray Davis (D), Issa spent $2 million of his own money launching a seemingly quixotic but successful bid to recall him by ballot petition. But Issa was elbowed out by another outsize personality, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and tearfully withdrew from the crowded race to succeed Davis.

Last year, as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's ranking member and with his party out of power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Issa parlayed his proclivity for publicity to establish a far bigger platform than his position would normally afford.

Now that Issa, 57, a Lebanese American who grew up working-class but is one of the wealthiest House members, is set to assume the chairmanship, his makeover is well underway. There are flashes of his former self, such as the 8-by-10-inch wood-framed photo of one of his countless appearances on Fox News displayed on the window ledge of his dark office. But these days, Issa is turning down some requests for lengthy sit-down interviews, and he seems cautious in the few he finds time for.

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