If Republicans win the House this fall, Rep. Darrell Issa will wield the majority’s sharpest investigative tool: the subpoena pen.
“Cabinet officers, assistant secretaries, directors — I will be able to take on everybody that the president hires and relies upon; the people who tell him that everything is fine,” pledges Issa, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in an interview with National Review Online.
For months, Issa, a California Republican, has been delving into allegations of bureaucratic abuse and political foul play, prepping for the committee chairmanship should the chance come. A relentless critic of the Obama administration, he frequently takes to cable news to highlight his growing pile of files. Everything from the alleged job offers made to Democratic candidates by White House emissaries, to the private-sector ties of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has caught his eye.
Prodding Democrats for answers, of course, has brought him both notoriety and enemies. The New York Times, for example, calls him President Obama’s “Annoyer-in-Chief.” Issa shrugs off Democrats’ displeasure. In fact, he says that he enjoys tangling with the administration and its flacks. But subpoena power, he notes, will make a “big difference” between annoying the administration and “holding its feet to the fire.”
“You will get oversight where now you don’t,” Issa observes. “[In the minority,] I try to create public awareness about my questions so that I can try to get at least partial answers. Without press coverage, however, it is hard to get heat onto members. The administration often simply does not respond.” With subpoena power, the stakes change. Republicans, he predicts, “may not have to use it, but when [investigative targets] know that you can, it makes them attempt to give you an answer.”
Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who chaired the oversight committee during the Clinton years, says if Issa becomes chairman, his investigations will most likely face intense opposition. “From my past experience, I know that [White House chief-of-staff] Rahm Emanuel, in particular, will do whatever is necessary to put pressure on the chairman,” he says. “[Emanuel] was part of a group in the Clinton White House that looked into everything that I had done since I was in high school to try and get me off of Clinton’s back. If [Issa] is aggressive — as I’m sure he will be — he should be prepared to get hit.”
Burton, who issued more than 1,000 subpoenas during his chairmanship, has high hopes for Issa. “It is extremely important to make sure that nothing questionable is going on in the executive branch and in government agencies,” he says. “Issa, who I think is very thoughtful and forceful, will likely do whatever is necessary as chairman to make sure that oversight is carried out. In that sense, he is a lot like I was: Unwilling to back down even when people threaten you.”
If he wins the chairmanship, Issa will be able to hire a slew of investigators. He says he hopes to build a team with a “healthy lack of respect, if you will, for bureaucrats. . . . I want them to assume that bureaucrats will always paint a rosy picture and to dig deep. . . . I’d look for the kind of people — talented attorneys and other investigators — who have the skills to do the research and find the failures in government.”