The Washington Post

Darrell Issa assesses his first year as chairman

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). (Bloomberg News)

Since assuming the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January 2011, the California Republican has held hundreds of hearings, made more than 700 requests for information and issued almost two dozen subpoenas.

But as The Federal Eye reports in Wednesday’s Post, for every line of inquiry that led to a public hearing or legislation, administration supporters and critics alike complain privately that Issa and his staff have inquired about dozens of alleged incidents or illegalities that resulted in no follow-ups, no hearings or reports.

In a recent interview, Issa recapped his first year on the job and previewed what the panel might probe in the year ahead. Find highlights of the conversation below, edited for clarity and length:

After one year, how do you think things have gone?

We’re the finger-in-the-dike committee, so when you spot leaks, waste, fraud and abuse — you don’t get all the leaks — but you get enough to see that the dam needs to be plugged. We’ve done very well at that. We’ve met the standard of quality reports, quality hearings, picking from a wide array of challenges, some critical ones, both in investigations and in reform offers.

Looking forward, we have a president with all the information given — with the duplicative programs, the 47 financial learning programs and so on — he comes up with a new Cabinet department for his reform and asks us for reorganization authority after he’s already decided that he’s going to cobble together a bunch of agencies and make it a Cabinet position.

I guess it would make it the roughly 23rd direct report. It’s very clear that gives us an opportunity to say, “Mr. President, you’re right, we need reorganization. Now let’s talk about authority and a process that brings real change the way the first Hoover Commission did. Something where it’s profound, and it saves a lot of money and deliver product better to the American people.”

So you don’t like what he’s proposed?

I think that it will give him the ability to say he did a reorganization, but, you know, we could look at Homeland Security — which was George W. Bush’s big reorganization — and say, what did he do? Well, he moved around a lot of disparate agencies, he formed a new Cabinet position and years later we’re pretty muddied. I would call it pretty close to a failure as a reorganization — I’m not talking about the men and women doing their jobs. But again, we did it post-9/11, in haste, in order to show we were doing something. And so small moves are of little value.

I’ve spent time talking to at least a dozen people who track your committee. Let me read you some of the things they said — sadly, they weren’t willing to have me attach their names to these things, but it should give you a sense of what people think: “He has the attention of a 4-year old,” one senior administration official said. “A lot of sizzle and no steak,” in the words of one Republican congressional staffer. “He gets amnesia after his office writes press releases,” said another GOP staffer. With so much being asked of the government, one of your own people told me that “I don’t even know what the definition of an investigation is because there’s so much going on around here.”

I don’t recognize the comments. I think there’s some times that people will say things and I’d be happy to have a discussion with them on the merits, and my staff would be happy to go point-by-point.

I was sent to Congress to be a jack-of-all trades and a master of as many as I could be, and I work full-time on it. So when somebody says I have a short attention span, this is a multi-tasking business. I have 80 people who work downstairs [in his committee office] for me, plus my duties here [in his district/personal office]. I serve on multiple committees, yeah, every meeting is different.

Regarding the scope of your inquiries, several people suggested that you have every right to oversee, but the volume of requests for information sends people scurrying and leaves them hanging, because they don’t hear back from the committee for months.

First of all, that’s not true. I take great pride, and my committee is happy to provide you with the proof. When people do reply, we do respond. When we’re satisfied, we close investigations.

This administration had no oversight under [Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Issa’s predecessor], none. Nancy Pelosi didn’t want it. ... She made the statement that every committee was going to do oversight, when in fact it didn’t happen.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), left, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during a July 2011 oversight hearing. (Joshua Roberts/BLOOMBERG)

We try to do legitimate fact-finding. I pushed work to the seven subcommittees, which makes them less high-profile, but it lets them go and get the substance. I demand that our people recognize that when our people do investigations that we reach conclusions. With committee reports that in a factual way, with lots of footnoting, show what we’ve done so that in the future there’s reference document that says, this was the entire cycle.

Do we send a lot of letters out? Yes. ... And when we get answers, we very quickly say we’re all set, thank you very much, we’re done. We close out the investigations often at the end of a response letter.

If one talks to people at the White House and in the Obama administration about you, they role their eyes, they scoff. They’re afraid of you.

They don’t need to be. I really meant it when I said give me good accountants, not lawyers. I’m really willing to do a lot of the work we do cooperatively whenever we get an opportunity. A number of people in the administration have been very good and very forthcoming.

Where? Who?

[Transportation Secretary] Ray LaHood — if I send a letter, he expects me to call him and tell him it’s coming, and I try to honor that. The fact is, even if I’m sending it to an underling, he gives personal attention to it, he’s very cooperative. He served on the Hill and he remembers it. That’s what it’s all about. He knows what it’s like to send those letters.

You’ll notice that the Department of the Defense — we’ve got lots of letters — but our investigations have gone reasonably well. … The fact is, we can’t be their friends, and we can’t be expected to tell them what they did right. Our job is not to be their cheerleaders. They have their own PR teams to tell them everything they’ve done right.

Has it been difficult working with this administration? Yes. By the way, I didn’t have this job under Bush, but I understand that under Bush the same attitude where it had to be their idea, they had to bring it to you and they had to tell you exactly how, was part of the problem. That frustrates people in the administration whose job it is, as you know, to make the president look good, to speak for the president.

My job is to make this administration better, and I will do that. I won’t speak ill of the president when he does right, and I won’t speak good of him when there’s something wrong.

Read the full story and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

As Super Tuesday looms, GOP primary heads into potentially decisive phase

Supreme Court agrees to reconsider use of race in college admission decisions

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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