Republicans suddenly care about White House oversight
Nick Juliano
Published: Thursday December 18, 2008

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After years of habitually resisting and belittling attempts to use a key House committee as a mechanism to investigate and hold the White House accountable, Republicans are deciding they want to get into the oversight game.

Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), who will become ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is making clear the next president will be firmly in his sights.

A day after he was formally selected as ranking member last week, Issa ousted 14 of 39 Republican committee staffers, including many senior aides. Outgoing staffers said they were told the panel's minority will shift its focus away from legislation toward oversight of federal agencies.

By bringing in aides with investigative backgrounds, committee Republicans believe they can increase their capacity to conduct independent investigations, despite lacking the majority's subpoena power.
To be sure, President-elect Barack Obama should be as subjected to Congressional scrutiny as any of his predecessors, and the adversarial relationship that has defined legislative-executive branch interactions over the last two years likely will dissipate now that Democrats control both.

Of course, a look at Issa's past performance on the committee suggests he'll be hardly as interested in an even-handed approach to good governance as he will be in using the perch for partisan grandstanding.

As Rep. Henry Waxman has burrowed into the various abuses of the Bush administration since taking the Oversight Committee gavel two years ago, Issa has continually belittled the panel's work and proven himself to be among the most obsequious defenders of even the most odious conduct from the president and his allies.

A member of the Oversight and Judiciary Committees, Issa has been in a position to defend Bush on issues ranging from warrantless wiretapping to contractor abuse to meddling with the EPA.

He also has not hesitated to come to the defense of Blackwater, at one point attacking the mothers of four defense contractors murdered in Iraq and implying that inquiries into Blackwater were akin to attacking US troops. Sometimes his defenses backfire, as when he was the only Oversight Committee member to meticulously trace the firm's GOP connections before hastily trying to argue that such connections should not be used to judge the security contractor.

Issa also has consistently opposed federal funding to help 9/11 rescue workers.

In Oversight Committee hearings, Issa did everything possible to make himself a thorn in Waxman's side. During one hearing on Bush administration meddling with EPA ozone standards, Issa frequently interrupted Waxman's questioning of EPA administrator Stephen Johnson.

"I will have you physically removed if you don't stop," a gavel-banging Waxman warned Issa.

During a floor debate over an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Issa jumped to Bush's defense and forced a Democratic lawmaker to withdraw his observation that Bush's warrantless surveillance program was illegal.

Issa's approach when he takes over the top Republican spot on Oversight will mirror the approach Waxman took when Democrats were out of power. And one former member who follows the committee cheered the move.

"With the administration and both houses controlled by Democrats, it makes sense policywise," he tells Government Executive.

After so long defending the reach of executive authority, it will be interesting to see how quickly Issa reverses his view of Congressional authority once a Democrat moves into the White House.