As congressional Republicans’ chief investigator, Rep. Darrell E. Issa has fast become the Obama administration’s worst nightmare, using the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to look into the “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation, foreign policy catastrophes and, most recently, the IRS’ delays of conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.
He’s also become a lightning rod for Democratic criticism, particularly after he called White House press secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar” this weekend.
But the verbal jabs aside, Mr. Issa is following in the footsteps of his predecessors at the helm of the committee, who often used the post to keep the pressure on presidents of the opposite party.
Indeed, analysts said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who ran the committee for the final two years of President George W. Bush’s tenure, was also relentless — and neither Mr. Waxman nor Mr. Issa can compare to former Rep. Dan Burton, who issued approximately 1,100 subpoenas by himself when he chaired the committee from 1997 to 2002.
Those Burton investigations included the successful impeachment of President Clinton — though the GOP-led Senate did not convict the president on any of the charges. Though not an official investigation, one of the Indiana Republican’s more infamous demonstrations occurred when he shot a cantaloupe in his backyard in an attempted re-enactment of the “murder” of former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, whose 1993 death was ruled a suicide.
“This committee — this is their job,” said David C.W. Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. “We have a more politicized atmosphere. [In] Oversight, they will investigate by mandate, but also by a broader partisan environment.”
Mr. Parker co-wrote a study that concluded congressional inquiries over the past 50 years or so tend to increase when the investigators belong to the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
Indeed, by one count, there were 605 investigations initiated in the first six months of the 110th Congress — when Mr. Waxman was chairman during the Bush administration — compared to 393 in the first six months of the 109th Congress, when then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, was serving as chairman under the same administration.
Mr. Davis looked into issues ranging from steroids in professional baseball to Mr. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Waxman certainly had his eyes on issues involving the Bush White House, but when he transitioned to chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee under President Obama, he led investigations into food safety issues and the circumstances surrounding the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Issa, meanwhile, issued his first subpoena as chairman in February 2011 to Bank of America, in which he called for records related to Countrywide Financial’s VIP program, and has issued approximately 50 in total.
He held hearings early on in his tenure on the fiscal crisis at the U.S. Postal Service, allegations of impropriety in the D.C. mayor’s office, and the Department of Homeland Security’s open records policy, among other issues.
Mr. Issa has certainly continued those pursuits, and others, but by summer 2011, his name became synonymous with Congress’s investigation of the botched Fast and Furious scheme, when he quickly rose to prominence for his dogged questioning of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — a habit he’s continued through to the recent IRS scandal.
“I’m not saying that Issa is essentially going out there finding something willy-nilly,” Mr. Parker said. “It’s exploiting a problem, and seeing whether this works. When Waxman becomes chair, you see a lot of investigations under Bush.”
Mr. Davis, who was chairman of the committee from 2003 to 2007, said Mr. Issa is just doing his job. The Virginia Republican argued that in comparison to the hyperaggressive Mr. Burton, Mr. Issa is “very measured.”
Democratic aides, though, argue that Mr. Issa does operate more in the style of Mr. Burton, pointing to the unique power the committee chairman has to unilaterally issue subpoenas without the agreement of the minority party or a vote of other committee members.
Mr. Davis would secure consent from Mr. Waxman, then the ranking member, to issue subpoenas — a practice Mr. Waxman agreed to emulate when he took over in 2007. That system actually did lead to high-profile probes during Mr. Davis’ tenure of the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, issues related to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the circumstances surrounding the death of former NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and the committee’s current ranking member, sent a letter to Mr. Issa in early 2011 urging him to steer away from Mr. Burton’s unilateral style.
A committee aide, though, pointed out there was no such colloquy between Mr. Issa and former Rep. Edolphus Towns, when the New York Democrat was chairman of the committee from 2009 to 2011, and that an open line of communication between Mr. Issa and Mr. Cummings does exist.
The two have worked together on the mortgage crisis, safety issues with Toyota cars, the Secret Service prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, and the use of human growth hormone in professional football.
But Cummings staffers say that in contrast to the Davis-Waxman years, they receive little notice — or none at all — on things such as subpoenas, hearing witnesses and party staff reports.
Such complaints, the committee aide said, “are either minor or outright baseless.”
“Mr. Issa, in many cases, consulted with ranking member Cummings in these instances,” the aide said.
Republicans, meanwhile, point to Mr. Waxman’s own zeal when he had the gavel and aggressively pursued issues involving the Bush administration, such as abuses by private security firms in Iraq and the use of Republican National Committee email accounts by officials in the White House.
Both inquiries resulted in congressional action, and in the latter case prompted reforms within the White House. But Mr. Davis said there was still a partisan lilt.
“The RNC had to spend over $1 million” in that case, Mr. Davis said. “It doesn’t get more partisan than that. When Obama came in, they shut down oversight.”
A Waxman staffer countered that there was aggressive oversight, but that the pursuits were always substantiated with facts.
“On investigations, Waxman’s approach was a strong believer in oversight, but his direction to us was to always lead with the facts,” the staffer said.
And even Mr. Davis conceded that politics necessarily are mixed in with the position.
“Everyone understands you’ve got a partisan job to do and a real job to do,” he said.