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Incoming House GOP chairmen have a long list of issues to investigate

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 12:49 AM

House Republican leaders announced plans Monday for congressional investigations into a wide range of issues, from corruption in Afghanistan to Washington's regulation of private industries, using the power of their new majority to launch probes that could embarrass the Obama administration.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who will become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when the 112th Congress is sworn in Wednesday, said he would lead six major investigations in the first three months of the year. This is an ambitious undertaking by conventional standards, as congressional investigations often take months to bear fruit.

Issa, who will have power to subpoena government officials to appear before the committee, said he intended to conduct inquiries into the release of classified diplomatic cables by Wikileaks; recalls at the Food and Drug Administration; the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the foreclosure crisis; the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's failure to identify the origins of the meltdown; as well as business regulations and alleged corruption in Afghanistan.

Other incoming Republican committee chairmen are planning investigations into the Justice Department's civil rights division, the radicalization of Muslims in the United States, homeland security grant money and air cargo and port and chemical plant security.

Every turnover in Congress fuels anticipation about how the new majority will scrutinize the administration. In Issa's case, the combative Republican has tempered his partisan rhetoric recently and appeared to steer clear of undertaking investigations that could be seen as overtly political. But his ambitious agenda sets up a potential early showdown between the White House and emboldened House Republicans.

Issa outlined plans to ask administration officials to testify, including national security adviser Tom Donilon, whom he wants to question about whether the administration has a strategy to stop the dissemination of sensitive information by sites like Wikileaks.

"I've always been fond of the saying that when it comes to oversight and reform, the federal government does two things well: nothing and overreact," Issa said Monday. "Too often, a problem is allowed to fester until it reaches a crisis point. . ..and the American people are left asking the question: what went wrong and why?"

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he plans to investigate the apparent radicalization of some Muslims in the United States and the extent to which American Muslims are cooperating with law enforcement authorities. He also plans to probe homeland security issues.

"Different from Darrell Issa, I'm not expecting to find significant corruption in the departments," King said in an interview. "To the extent there's disagreement, it will be philosophical disagreement and a question of leadership, whether or not the department is assertive enough."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who is taking over the House Judiciary Committee, is planning investigations of the Justice Department, including allegations that the civil rights division is not fairly enforcing voter rights laws, according to a senior aide.

Since Democrats control the Senate, the White House and federal agencies, Republicans can use House oversight hearings to slow down policies and practices they disapprove of.

"The ability to hold hearings is a tool to help shape public opinion, put pressure on the Senate and maybe allow you at the end of the day to get concessions from the administration," said former Republican congressman Vin Weber, a Washington lobbyist.

But, Weber added: "Speaker [John] Boehner is quietly insisting that the investigative process be focused on substantive matters and not become a political witch hunt."

Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said the investigations will focus on the "institutionalized culture of waste, fraud and abuse" within the federal bureaucracy. "The enemy isn't the Democrats or the Republicans," Bardella said. "It's the bureaucracy that outlasts any one administration or political party."

Still, such findings could have broad political reverberations for President Obama as he prepares his 2012 reelection campaign.

So far, the White House has not engaged Issa, preferring to wait and see what he does once he becomes chairman rather than react to what he says he will do.

Congress has long summoned senior administration officials to testify. At times, various White Houses have resisted. The Bush White House invoked executive privilege to keep national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, strategist Karl Rove and others from discussing sensitive or potentially embarrassing information.

If a similar legal battle ensues between Obama and Issa, a team of White House lawyers and communications officials will coordinate the response, administration aides said. On the legal end, White House counsel Bob Bauer will play a lead role in devising the strategy, with lawyers Kathy Ruemmler and Kimberley Harris taking charge of the response.

The White House also could tap the expertise of congressional liaison Phil Schiliro, who once served as the top aide on the oversight committee under Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who launched investigations into the Bush administration.

The committee's new ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), will take over from Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who had been chairman and enjoyed a close rapport with Issa but was seen as a weaker adversary to him than the more hard-charging Cummings.

"Issa is concerned about his legacy, believe it or not," Towns said in an interview. "And he'd like to be able to do some things that will make a difference and people years and years from now will say this happened under his chairmanship."

Cummings is more skeptical. He said Issa appears to have drawn conclusions about some issues even though his investigations have not yet begun. For instance, Issa has long said he believed federal regulations inhibit job creation, but plans to hold "fact-finding" hearings on the matter.

Cummings has taken issue with Issa's calling Obama's administration "one of the most corrupt administrations" in a television interview on Sunday.

"Corruption basically says people are criminals, and I think that's a pretty strong statement having not one scintilla of evidence, having not heard one hearing or had one testimony," Cummings said in an interview. "I think that if we have concerns, then what we should do is in a bipartisan way bring witnesses before our committee, depose them and hear what they have to say, and then draw conclusions."

There are potential pitfalls for Issa and other Republican chairmen investigating the administration. During the late 1990s, House Republicans pursued inquiries that many considered political fishing expeditions - such as investigating whether former President Clinton's adviser Vince Foster was murdered despite his death being reported as a suicide.

This and other Republican-led Clinton-era investigations bore no substantial results, and backfired on the party politically. With polls showing that Obama is far more personally popular than congressional Republican leaders, Democrats warn that the public has little appetite for political persecutions.

"Issa seems like a pretty savvy guy, but ultimately there's a pretty good likelihood that he ends up like Fred Thompson or Henry Hyde or Dan Burton," Democratic strategist Jim Jordan said, referencing House Republicans who led the push against Clinton.

Democrats, too, have been accused of overreaching. Some Republicans considered it frivolous when the Waxman-led committee investigated the steroids scandal in professional baseball in 2008. Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens testified under oath that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs. Two years later, he was indicted on charges of lying in his testimony.

Under both parties' control, the oversight committee has at times held hearings with little follow-up. In 2007 and 2008, Waxman's high-profile investigation of veterans charities found that some of them were misusing money they had raised under the pretense of helping care for troops. Despite raucous hearings, Congress passed no laws to change the charities' practices.

"The big thing Issa's got to be thinking about is if you become the dog that barks and no one listens, you become irrelevant very quickly," said Dean Zerbe, a former senior oversight aide to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "He needs to work with authorizing committees and leadership to tie in solutions with legislation or regulations."

ruckerp@washpost.com Staff writers Peter Wallsten and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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