Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

The New Overseer

What Jason Chaffetz learned from Henry Waxman

In October of 1990, Senator Alan Simpson, the Republican whip, emerged from an all-night negotiating session with his House counterparts on a series of clean-air regulations. What insights had he gained? “I learned that Henry Waxman is tougher than a boiled owl,” he said, referring to California’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Years later, George W. Bush and his administration would learn the same. In 2007 Waxman became chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a panel with powers unique across Congress: to issue subpoenas requiring witnesses to produce documents, testify at hearings, and show up for depositions. The irascible Californian exercised his powers masterfully. Recall the explosive testimony of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, who first appeared on camera before Waxman’s committee; the investigation into the death in Afghanistan of NFL safety turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman by what turned out to be friendly fire; and the hearings on the security contractor Blackwater, which thrust the company’s business practices into the national spotlight and ultimately led to its demise.

Surveying today’s political landscape, rife with scandal and malfeasance, Republicans could use their own Henry Waxman: a shrewd and tenacious operator, a consummate Washington insider, somebody who by sheer force of will can wring concessions and, ultimately, grudging respect from his enemies — after taking a few scalps.

As it turns out, one Republican congressman has been taking notes from Waxman, and in November he was elected chairman of the Oversight Committee, to begin in January. Jason Chaffetz, with his mop of curls, warm demeanor, and broad smile, bears little resemblance to the acerbic Waxman. In lobbying for the chairmanship, he sold himself as a kinder and friendlier version of the current Republican chairman, California representative Darrell Issa, and he’s fond of telling reporters that the committee’s ranking member, Maryland Democrat and Obama ally Elijah Cummings, is a friend.

And while Issa’s hearings have often been punctuated by his dramatic shouting matches with Cummings, Chaffetz promises he won’t let business get personal. But don’t write him off as merely a nice guy. Chaffetz says he sought Waxman’s advice when he arrived in Washington in 2009 and has been taking notes from him for the past six years. So while investigations into the Obama administration have thus far been high on drama and low on results, that may be about to change.

“I just proactively went up and shook his hand and said I care about this and I admire what he’s done,” Chaffetz says of his first encounter with Waxman. “Although I disagree with him on just about everything,” Chaffetz continues, Waxman is passionate about “the process by which you do oversight, and the elements and keys to success.”

If Waxman was the Bush administration’s most deft antagonist, Chaffetz is looking to play the same role in the Obama era. “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 passing along the tricks of the trade. “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, from 2007 through 2010, to get some clues. First and foremost, he strengthened his committee with top-notch staffers — mostly lawyers — with reputations for loyalty, and investigators whose tentacles reached into dozens of federal agencies. Karen Nelson, his health-policy director and a former partner at the Washington law firm Kirkland & Ellis, first joined him in 1978; Phil Schiliro, his committee chief of staff, joined his personal staff in the mid 1980s after serving as editor of the law review at Lewis & Clark College; Phil Barnett, his staff director and a Harvard-trained lawyer, had been with him since 1989. “He found very good people and gave them the license and latitude to do their jobs well,” says a former Waxman aide. “He trusted them on tough calls, on whether to pursue issues or not.”

Waxman and his team carefully constructed their cases, issuing investigative reports before committee hearings took place. The hearings then functioned like trials, with the chairman marshalling the evidence his legal team had assembled and undermining the credibility of the witnesses dragged before him. “Yeah, he was very aggressive,” says a former committee aide, “but he was aggressive once he had all the facts.”

#page#Waxman and his team also knew how to use Congress’s arcane rules to their advantage. He literally wrote the book on how Washington functions (The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works), and in a 2009 review, the Washington Post’s Robert G. Kaiser wrote that Waxman “is to Congress what Ted Williams was to baseball — a natural.” In order to depose witnesses, for example, the majority party must notify the minority in advance, explaining its legal reasoning, and transcripts can be released only when the majority and minority agree to release them. To circumvent those requirements, Waxman and his staff began conducting informal interviews, which 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, sharing the details of investigations they were set to unveil in committee hearings hours later.

Chaffetz sees plenty of opportunities for oversight in Obama’s Washington. “It’s a target-rich environment,” he 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 had popped in and out of the headlines for months, but when word got out that the White House had tried 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 the White House had been less than forthcoming about the incident. In several of the news stories written about it, Chaffetz is quoted generously, one indication that he was a key source for the reporters who got the story on the front pages of the national newspapers.

Chaffetz has also been able to draw attention to what might seem like much more boring issues, those that fall into the category of oversight rather than scandal, such as the State Department’s embassy-construction practices. He earned a plum segment on CBS This Morning about the topic, drawing gasps from the anchors about the flashy $1 billion American embassy in London that has already run $100 million over budget.

Chaffetz’s ascension to the post comes at a time when many are restless for change. Though Issa’s chairmanship was greeted with high hopes four years ago, when Republicans regained a majority in Congress, it has fallen flat. Investigations into the Justice Department’s involvement in a gun-running scheme into Mexico known as Fast and Furious have fizzled. So have those into the two most explosive scandals of the Obama administration: the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, and the deaths of four Americans at the hands of Muslim terrorists in Benghazi, Libya.

At times, it has looked as though Issa was not fully prepared for key hearings, leaving some Republicans longing for Waxman-like precision. When Lois Lerner, the architect of the IRS’s political targeting, appeared before the committee and invoked her Fifth Amendment rights after proclaiming her innocence, Issa allowed her to leave the hearing. It was South Carolina representative Trey Gowdy who suggested, at a subsequent hearing, that by making a statement, Lerner had waived her right to silence. In recent months, e-mails unearthed not by the Oversight Committee but by the watchdog group Judicial Watch have pushed the scandal back into the headlines. “We really let that get away from us,” says one Republican congressman. “We fumbled badly.”

Then there was Benghazi, where Republican-led committees have stepped on each other’s toes. In May, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon impeached the integrity of a key Benghazi witness who had been called before Issa’s committee. “It just made us look so bad,” says the GOP congressman.

That sentiment extends outside the halls of Congress. “Any objective observer would, I believe, say Darrell Issa’s chairmanship of the committee has been less than a success,” says David Bossie, president and chairman of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, who served as the top investigator on the committee during the Clinton administration.

In Chaffetz, though, Henry Waxman has left behind an unlikely but promising protégé at an opportune time.

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