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California’s Darrell Issa Loses Power With House Oversight Committee Post

By Noah Bierman, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — For four years, Rep. Darrell Issa presided over one of the highest-profile oversight committees in Congress, becoming a fixture in the national news as he took the Obama administration to task for everything from bank bailouts to corruption in Afghanistan.

Only three months ago, the California congressman unveiled a portrait of himself to hang proudly in the committee hearing room.

“Click LIKE to thank Chairman Issa for his tireless commitment to transparency and for his dedicated service to the American people,” the oversight committee Facebook page suggested as the portrait was hung.

Just days after his successor took over at the helm in January, though, the new painting vanished from the hearing room. It now hangs in a private committee anteroom, beside a coat rack and a television screen.

Its journey echoes the waning influence of the California Republican, whose confrontational style managed to wear not only on Democrats, but on members of his own party.

Issa used his position atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to relentlessly poke at President Barack Obama over Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, the “Fast and Furious” failed gun sting, and any number of topics that made for high theater and cable cameos. But Issa’s investigations often failed to show direct culpability on the part of the White House or Obama, whom he once called “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”

Issa’s influence began to wane last year, when party leaders diverted attention from his high-drama investigation of the deadly 2012 attack against U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, by establishing a new committee to focus on the incident.

Then they thwarted his attempt to secure a rare exception to the limit on how long he could lead the oversight committee. (He served one term as the committee’s top Republican, when Democrats held the majority, and then a pair of two-year terms as its chairman.)

His successor, fellow Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, campaigned to succeed Issa on a promise to run the committee differently. When he took over in January, Chaffetz replaced many of Issa’s staff members and engineered the move of portraits of Issa and other former chairmen.

“Darrell Issa didn’t do many reports,” Chaffetz told reporters in December, after Republican leaders tapped him, according to Roll Call. “(He) did big press releases.”
“It’s not the ‘Jason Chaffetz Show,'” he said at another point.

Issa, now beginning his eighth term in Congress, finds himself at a crossroads.

Despite a personal fortune that gives him a huge advantage in elections, there was little clamoring among California Republicans for him to reprise a run for the Senate seat that Democrat Barbara Boxer will relinquish after the 2016 election. Issa spent $10 million trying to unseat her in 1998 but failed to win the Republican nomination.

He appears unlikely to follow the path of one of his predecessors in the post, former Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Beverly Hills, a Democrat who left Congress this year after four decades with a legacy as a legislative titan. Two factors get in Issa’s way: The Republican Party imposes term limits on its chairmen, and many members of the party philosophically oppose the type of sweeping legislation championed by Waxman and other liberals.

Issa’s allies say he retains leverage; he is a key ally to Silicon Valley, leading a subcommittee that oversees patents. And Issa has succeeded before in surprising ways, even as he took on a highly partisan role: He worked with Democrats to oppose anti-piracy measures that opponents said would undermine free speech on the Internet.

His new committee assignments — he was also named to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in December — will put him in the middle of compelling issues.

“He’s very much going to be active and robust in policy and intellectual property issues, which is really in his wheelhouse,” said Kurt Bardella, a former aide to Issa who is now a private media consultant. Issa, who made his fortune manufacturing anti-theft devices for cars, has held 37 patents, according to his office.

Issa declined a request to discuss his plans or past performance. When a reporter approached him in a House hallway to request an interview, he refused and said that the result would be a “hit piece.”

Just a few minutes later, the committee Issa used to lead met for the first time since he handed over the gavel to Chaffetz. The top Democrat on the committee, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, opened his remarks with a call for a “new beginning.”

“The last four years were filled with acrimony, partisanship and sometimes vulgar displays,” Cummings said. “They were a stain on this committee’s integrity and an embarrassment to the House of Representatives.”

Cummings was a principal figure in one of Issa’s most controversial moves, which occurred during a hearing last year that was devoted to IRS scrutiny given to some conservative groups’ tax-exempt status.

Issa, angry after former IRS Director Lois Lerner pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions, called the meeting adjourned even as Cummings tried to speak. Cummings protested that it was a “one-sided investigation” as Issa shut down the Democrat’s microphone and began to leave.

“I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America. I am tired of this,” Cummings said, his arm shaking and his words echoing through the large chamber even without amplification. The dispute, caught on video, spread widely over social media.

For many, the incident illustrated how decorum had fallen in Congress, as genteel formalities have given way to unvarnished contempt among partisans. But it specifically tarnished Issa and contributed to Republicans’ distancing themselves from him.

In a 348-page report, Issa cited a number of accomplishments from his four years at the helm of the oversight committee. They include 23 laws passed, including the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which required federal agencies to put more detailed budget information online for public scrutiny. Issa also pointed to more than 100 subpoenas he issued — a tactic that critics have assailed as excessive — and to nearly 60 reports released.

But some of the highest-profile investigations have failed to live up to the initial hype. For example, his final investigation on the IRS targeting conservative groups failed to show evidence of White House involvement, despite Issa’s statement in 2013 that “this was a targeting of the president’s political enemies” that was discovered only after Obama’s re-election. His statement last year that he suspected former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had told former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to “stand down” during the attack on Americans in Benghazi was not substantiated by two separate congressional reports.

Yet even some Democrats say that Issa helped Republicans make significant gains in the November election.

“There’s no question he accomplished part of his mission, which was to do damage to the president,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the oversight committee. “The relentless headline-grabbing, breathless subpoenas and hearings, and charges certainly served a purpose, even though there was very little there, it turns out.”

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Stanford Center for Internet and Society via Flickr

Changing Of The Guard On Oversight Panels

By Tim Starks, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

Congress lost several of its titans of aggressive, bipartisan oversight and investigation at the end of last year: the likes of Carl Levin, Tom Coburn and George Miller. Analysts say this continues a trend that, with the loss of tough questioners such as Henry A. Waxman and John D. Dingell, amounts to a brain drain for an art that has been on the decline since the 1970s.

It is not, they predict, a trend likely to turn around in a congressional term where the presidency will be up for grabs, with a GOP-controlled House and Senate and a Democratic incumbent as commander-in-chief.

“If you like oversight, you’re going to get it, but it might not be the oversight you like,” said David C.W. Parker, a Montana State University political science professor who co-authored a 2013 study of congressional oversight.

Yet while that particular brand of muscular oversight that’s light on politics might be in shorter supply until after 2016, it isn’t necessarily without hope.

There’s a new generation with freshly acquired committee gavels, including Republicans Jason Chaffetz of Utah at House Oversight and Government Reform, and Bob Corker of Tennessee at Senate Foreign Relations, who might be ready to step in. And there are still some standard-bearers around — Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona, for instance — in new positions of authority.

What’s more, independent efforts are afoot to bolster oversight from the outside, some of them drawing on the talents of recently departed Hill leaders. Levin, for instance, is exploring ways to strengthen oversight.
“This is not the Congress of the 1970s that brought about tremendous reforms in the executive branch through serious and diligent oversight work,” said Justin Rood, a former investigator for Coburn and now leading one of the independent efforts at the Project on Government Oversight.

Still, Rood said, “We’ve been heartened by the comments and actions from folks like Chairman Chaffetz and others saying the right things and doing the right things to suggest they want to pursue oversight as a collaborative effort with Democrats.”

Chaffetz has gone to lengths to distance himself from his predecessors, most notably the combative California Republican Darrell Issa, even removing Issa’s portrait and those of other past chairman from the committee’s hearing room, although he maintains it was no slight against them.

Nonetheless, Chaffetz recently got his first taste of friction with the opposite party at a markup establishing rules for his panel, rules that Democrats harshly criticized as the ongoing “Issa-tizing” of the committee and the House as a whole.

“We’re going to be aggressive; we’re not going to mince words. I hope it ends up being as bipartisan as it can,” Chaffetz said. “It’s imperative that we get to the truth. I think if we can avoid making it too personal with other members of Congress and make sure we don’t attack their motivations, all will be good. We’re going to tackle issues that the Democrats aren’t going to like. I hope at the end of that process, they’ll say we were tough but fair.”

The Congresses of the 1970s marked a departure point for oversight and investigations, Parker said. The landmark Watergate investigation didn’t begin as a bipartisan one, and only ended that way once Richard Nixon’s political fortunes sank.

However impressive Congress’ work was on Watergate in demonstrating the value of stiff, bipartisan oversight, it also demonstrated to aspiring politicians that rooting out scandal could be a great way to seize the spotlight, said Parker.

Parker’s research clearly suggests that when there is divided government, the quality of oversight decreases even as the quantity of it increases. That tendency is greater in the House than in the Senate, with more investigations overall, but shorter ones.

In divided government, Parker said, “they prosecute the other party, essentially. They engage in politics by other means. If you think about oversight in terms of good government, that’s not necessarily what’s happening. Conversely, if you flip it around, unified government oversight leads to problems getting swept under the rug.”

“Bipartisan” and “aggressive” are sometimes difficult to combine. For some of the pockets of bipartisan oversight in Congress in recent years, such as the House Intelligence Committee, one criticism has been that Republicans and Democrats have been too sympathetic toward the agencies they oversee.

Some of the issues might be structural. Former aides to a special Senate committee that investigated intelligence abuses in the 1970s, better known as the Church Committee after its chairman, Frank Church (D-ID, 1957-81), recently came together for a New York University report that called on Congress to examine its own oversight.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee’s five-year inquiry into the CIA’s abusive detention and interrogation practices provides a striking example of the diligence Congress can apply in meticulously scrutinizing covert government activities, and preparing a report suitable for public release,” the report states.

“But it also exposes its limits. The summarized report details how the CIA successfully frustrated oversight of its torture program for several years by refusing, delaying, or inappropriately limiting congressional briefings, and providing incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading information to its overseers.”

A Vanderbilt University study last year concluded that Congress has diluted its own influence by having too many committees overlapping in their oversight of specific agencies.

McCain said congressional oversight hasn’t gotten better during his time in office. “Overall, it’s worse, of course,” he said.

McCain is a member of the old guard, but he is joined by some newer faces among committee leaders who could carry the torch of aggressive, bipartisan oversight and investigation.

McCain and the top Democrat on his committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, point to a deeply ingrained culture at Senate Armed Services, with former leaders such as Levin and Virginia Republican John Warner.

“It’s a continuity, because fortunately over many years under Democratic and Republican chairmen, it’s been a bipartisan committee,” McCain said. “On the Armed Services Committee we have this long tradition. In some ways it would be viewed by members on both sides as a tremendous breach if we didn’t maintain that.”

Said Reed: “In many of the efforts, Senator Levin and Senator McCain worked together. You’re looking at someone who’s done serious bipartisan investigation of tough problems, shedding light on problems that wouldn’t otherwise be discovered.”

Chaffetz said he admires the approach of Coburn, whom he thinks exemplifies the “tough but fair” philosophy he follows. He even hired a former Coburn staffer, Andrew Dockham, to be his general counsel.

While on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz has been at the forefront of digging into matters that annoy Democrats, like the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

And some of the issues he wants to examine as chairman, such as the 2010 health care law or the Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of nonprofits, are sure to continue annoying them.

But Chaffetz also said his committee is done with Benghazi, now the subject of a separate House select committee investigation. He points to his agreement with Obama on some topics, such as Cuba, and his work with Democrats on other topics, such as prison reform. Last year he did a “district swap” with the panel’s top Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, where they each visited one another back home.

“If you earn a reputation for calling balls and strikes as you see them, I think you gain a lot of credibility. Hopefully I’ve done that through the years,” he said. “I hope the authenticity of my positions is readily apparent and builds bridges rather than blow them up.”

That said, Chaffetz expected the Democratic fight over committee rules because he had talked with them about it in advance. At that Jan. 27 markup of committee rules, Chaffetz refused to give up his unilateral subpoena power. Democrats say Issa abused that authority, which a number of House committees have adopted in 2015 and which has troubled many advocates of bipartisan oversight.

Chaffetz said he intends to consult Democrats on those subpoenas, but wouldn’t relinquish his authority simply to appease Democrats.

Waxman, a member of the departed corps of veteran congressional interrogators, decried the GOP consolidation of subpoena power in a Washington Post op-ed on Feb. 6. “This is an invitation to abuse that diminishes the prospect for responsible congressional oversight,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, this ill-fated move has received virtually no attention.”

Although Chaffetz believes he can work with Democrats on issues such as the Secret Service or the powers of inspectors general, he said that sometimes they won’t be happy.

“I don’t want the Democrats to cry foul just because we’re looking at the Obama administration,” he said. “He won the election. He’s the president. We are the check and balance. To do our job under the Constitution, we’re supposed to be asking tough questions.”

Corker, for his part, said a pre-existing relationship with the top Democrat on Foreign Relations, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, will make the oversight better. “Our default position is always to do first everything we can with the minority side,” Corker said, “which is what they did when they were in the majority.”

One of Corker’s priorities will be to restore passage of a regular State Department authorization bill, a key vehicle for committee oversight of an agency. “It’s essential,” he said. “It’s actually, let’s face it, one of our primary obligations here. It’s really hard to believe we haven’t passed one in 13 years.”

The Project on Government Oversight has previously offered oversight and investigative training to staff members from both parties, but in December it formed a new Congressional Oversight Initiative to expand that.

“We saw that this last Congress, a significant number of congressional oversight leaders retiring from office, and along with that a lot of their staff, which worried us,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO.

The group’s initiative draws on a network of Hill oversight veterans, some of who worked in Congress as far back as the 1980s, Rood said. The program recently produced an analysis of committee rules that it shared with Hill staff members, and plans to offer other services as well.

“It’s not news that in recent years, the legislative branch has struggled to hold the executive branch to account,” Rood said. “We’re trying to keep the flame from dying.”

A lingering question will be whether the caliber of hard-nosed, unbiased investigation will be affected by the 2016 presidential race. “Elections can get in the way, but we can’t go into hibernation because there’s going to be a new president in town,” Chaffetz said.

“I would ask the same hard questions whether it was President (Mitt) Romney or President Obama,” he said. “My guy lost. I’m over it and we’ve got a job to do. We’ve got so many topics to go through. There’s a nearly $4 trillion budget, and with millions of employees somebody is always doing something stupid somewhere.

“I gotta do my job, and they might try to assess motivations, but all I’m trying to do is root out waste, fraud and abuse,” Chaffetz said.

Photo: Jim Greenhill via Flickr

Obamacare Adviser Apologizes To Lawmakers For Controversial Comments: ‘I Behaved Badly’

By Noam N. Levey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who worked on the Affordable Care Act, apologized to members of Congress on Tuesday for a series of controversial comments he made about the law, which Republicans have seized on to attack the health care legislation.

“I behaved badly, and I will have to live with that,” Gruber told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “But my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act. The ACA is a milestone accomplishment for our nation that already has provided millions of Americans with health insurance.”

Gruber, an economist who advised the White House during the development of the law in 2009 and 2010, was captured in a series of videos speaking disparagingly about voters and the development of the measure.

In one video, he said passage of the law was only possible because of the “stupidity” of the American voter.

In another, he suggested that residents of states that rely on the federal government to operate insurance marketplaces are not eligible for tax subsidies, a key tool in the law that allows millions of Americans to buy health coverage on these marketplaces.

The comments have become a cause celebre for Republicans, who have labeled Gruber an architect of the law, a characterization he disputed Tuesday.

Gruber’s comments have also given ammunition to a legal challenge to the tax credits.

There is widespread agreement among the law’s architects that it allows all low- and moderate-income Americans to receive the tax credits whether they live in states that are operating their own insurance marketplace or live in states that rely on the federal government’s.

But critics assert that language in the law suggests the credits should be limited to state-run marketplaces. The Supreme Court is now considering a lawsuit that could take away credits from millions of Americans in states that do not operate their own marketplaces.

Gruber said Tuesday he does not believe that the credits should be limited.

“I have a long-standing and well-documented belief that health care reform legislation in general, and the ACA in particular, must include mechanisms for residents in all states to obtain tax credits,” he said, noting that the economic models he developed assumed these credits would be available everywhere.

Gruber also noted that contrary to his earlier statements, the law was not developed secretly. “Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of these policies, but it is completely clear that these issues were debated thoroughly during the drafting and passage of the ACA,” he said.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-A) and other Republicans nevertheless kept up their attacks on Gruber for what Issa termed “arrogance and deceptions surrounding the passage and implementation of Obamacare.”

AFP Photo/Joe Raedle