Jason Chaffetz, with his mop of curls, warm demeanor, and broad smile, has sold himself to colleagues and to the press as a strong conservative, sure, but one with a softer side.
The incoming chairman of the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who lobbied aggressively for the position for months, has said his committee would be different from the one run by his predecessor, California representative Darrell Issa. He’s fond of telling reporters that the committee’s ranking member, Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, is a friend. Unlike Issa, he says, whose hearings were often punctuated with dramatic shouting matches between Issa and Cummings, he won’t let business get personal. He also says he’ll do oversight on less-controversial issues, rooting out “bad apples” in the bureaucracy and reforming the U.S. Postal Service.
Or that’s how Chaffetz’s pitch went. But his Democratic counterparts and future targets should know this: He’s been preparing for this role for years under the tutelage of one of Washington’s most formidable investigators, former Oversight chief Henry Waxman.
During his term atop the committee, the irascible Democrat from California used knowledge and savvy accrued over decades in Washington to redefine congressional oversight in the modern era. In fact, it was Waxman who added the term “Oversight” to the committee’s name and responsibilities — it had previously been the Committee on Government Reform.
As the chief investigator of the Bush administration between 2007 and 2009, Waxman’s tenacity won him grudging respect even from his political opponents. His success was, even to his critics, undeniable, while investigations in the Obama years have been high on drama and lower on results. If Chaffetz manages to emulate his mentor, that’s about to change.
Chaffetz, who is now entering his fourth term in Congress, says he sought out Waxman when he arrived in Washington in 2009. “I just proactively went up and shook his hand and said I care about this and I admire what he’s done,” Chaffetz says. “Although I disagree with him on just about everything,” Chaffetz says, Waxman is “passionate about [Congress as an] institution, the process by which you do oversight, and the elements and keys to success.”
“If you look at his effectiveness, ouch,” Chaffetz says. “He took a bite out of the [Bush] administration and, from that respect, I admire what he did.”
Waxman, who has served his California district for 40 years, announced his retirement in June, but not before sharing the tricks of the trade with his junior colleague. “It’s the secret sauce,” Chaffetz says, “and I’m not willing to give it up easily.”
One need only glance back at Waxman’s years holding the gavel to get some clues. His committee was strengthened by top-notch staffers, a core team of 25 investigators whose tentacles reached into dozens of federal agencies. They were assiduous, but also had a flair for the dramatic. It was Waxman who facilitated former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson’s on-camera testimony, dragged former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Capitol Hill to testify about NFL safety turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s death from friendly fire, and put the security contractor Blackwater under scrutiny that ultimately led to its demise.
He and his team also knew how to use Congress’s arcane rules to their advantage. (In fact, the Californian literally wrote a book on how Washington works; the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser memorably wrote that Waxman “is to Congress was Ted Williams was to baseball — a natural.”) In order to depose witnesses, for example, the majority party on Oversight must notify the minority in advance, explaining its legal reasoning for doing so, and transcripts are released only when the majority and minority agree to. To circumvent those requirements, Waxman and his staff began conducting informal interviews that were easier to obtain. “Word is out among government contractors to demand depositions whenever possible when the oversight panel comes to call,” the Washington Post wrote at the time.
Waxman and his staff routinely dropped bombs on their Republican colleagues, too, sharing the details of investigations they were set to unveil in committee hearings just hours before they began.
Chaffetz sees plenty of opportunities in Obama’s Washington, as his predecessor did when he took the gavel seven years ago. “It’s a target-rich environment,” Chaffetz says. “National Review is not big enough to list all the potential issues. You’d have to do a special issue just to list all the potential hearings, and you still wouldn’t print enough pages.”
He certainly understands the atmospherics of politics and the role of Congress’s investigative arm in stoking a media firestorm. Scandals surrounding the Secret Service popped in and out of the headlines for months, but when word went out that the White House had endeavored to protect a junior staffer who had reportedly hired a prostitute on a presidential trip to Colombia, as many Secret Service agents were fired for doing, Chaffetz was there. The congressman had already written a letter to the administration expressing concern that White House had been less than forthcoming about the incident.
Chaffetz promises more to come on the matter. “The White House went to great lengths to say there was absolutely nobody [from the president’s office] involved, and I don’t think that’s true,” he says. “It seems that the White House held itself to a different standard than they held the Secret Service. And again, if we’re concerned about the Secret Service, statistically, they have one of the lowest levels of morale of anybody in federal government. . . . So when they see that the White House goes to great lengths to protect themselves and not the Secret Service, and then you want these people to take a bullet for ya? Come on.”
Chaffetz has even been able to draw attention to what might seem like far more tedious issues, such as the State Department’s embassy-construction practices. He earned a plum segment on CBS’s This Morning about the topic, drawing looks of astonishment about the flashy $1 billion American embassy in London that has already run $100 million over budget.
Chaffetz also promises to continue investigations on the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal and the IRS’s targeting of right-leaning groups, among others, longstanding focuses of Issa’s Oversight Committee. “You’ll be writing about them,” Chaffetz says.
So don’t be fooled by his friendly manner. “I have an aggressive nature,” he says. “They’re going to have to keep up with our pace.”
As he prepares to retire, Henry Waxman is leaving an unlikely protégé.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.