Rep. Darrell Issa, the House Republicans’ new chief investigator, is expanding his oversight committee to focus on the heart of President Barack Obama’s legislative achievements.
The California Republican, who has called Obama’s administration “corrupt,” says he will hold hundreds of hearings as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
He has created two subcommittees to scrutinize policies defining Obama’s first two years in office: the $814 billion economic stimulus plan and the bailouts of banks and automakers. A third panel will oversee Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
Issa’s decisions signal that, at least initially, he wants to focus on issues that helped Republicans regain the House majority in the Nov. 2 elections, said Mark Paoletta, a lawyer who helped run investigations for the House Energy and Commerce Committee when the party was last in control before 2007.
“These will be very fertile grounds to find waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Paoletta. “It will be a gold mine” that “goes to the heart of some of Obama’s signature legislative issues.”
That’s in contrast to one of Issa’s predecessors as committee chairman.
Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, a Republican, spent three years during the 1990s investigating the death of President Bill Clinton’s aide Vince Foster, which had been ruled a suicide. The investigation is remembered mostly for Burton shooting a pumpkin in his back yard in an effort to demonstrate that Foster didn’t kill himself.
Issa, 57, a six-term congressman who became a millionaire selling car alarms, already has dropped one partisan issue.
He has said he doesn’t plan to pursue allegations that the White House offered a job last year to then-Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat, in an unsuccessful effort to keep him out of a Senate race. Issa last year requested a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe and referred to the matter as Obama’s “Watergate.”
Still, Democrats are signaling that they are ready for a battle. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the lead Democrat on the oversight panel, said Jan. 3 on MSNBC that he will “look at every single issue that Mr. Issa wants to bring up, and we’re going to make sure that we do everything in our power to stop it from being a partisan attack.”
Cummings has hired as staff director David Rapallo, the former chief investigative counsel to former committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. Rapallo also was general counsel on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Issa has announced that he will investigate a list of topics that include a government program for helping homeowners avoid foreclosure, the release of classified diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, and Food and Drug Administration recalls.
He plans to look into the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the foreclosure crisis, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s failure to agree on origins of the economic meltdown, and corruption in Afghanistan.
Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, said his boss may hold his first committee hearing by the end of this month, though he didn’t disclose the topic. He said the subcommittees reflect the agenda Issa “has always said he would pursue — one that is focused on identifying and reforming waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement within the federal bureaucracy.”
Asked about his allegation that Obama’s administration is corrupt, Issa said on Fox News Jan. 5 that the president used trillions of dollars “to take care of pet projects and pet organizations,” including bailout funds to General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC that the congressman said benefited labor unions.
Some nonpartisan experts said they are skeptical that Issa won’t use his new perch as a partisan tool.
“On the one hand they’re starting to focus away from the obvious knee-jerk partisan inquiries,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit group that investigates corruption.
Even so, Brian said a letter that Issa sent last month asking more than 150 businesses and trade groups which regulations they’d like to see overturned — without also requesting input from consumer groups — wasn’t a good development.
“It still gives pause where they’re going to go,” she said.
Bardella said the goal was to engage groups that were alienated by what the congressman views as an anti-business climate in the Obama administration that hurt job creators.
Issa named Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as chairman of a new subcommittee on regulatory affairs, stimulus oversight, and government spending.
Patrick McHenry of North Carolina will lead investigations into the Troubled Assets Relief Program, financial services, and bailouts of public and private programs. TARP, created in 2008 during the final months of President George W. Bush’s administration, bought assets from troubled financial institutions that suffered billions in losses during the subprime mortgage crisis.
McHenry has said he wants to find out if TARP worked and how the funds were used.
Issa hasn’t named a chairman for the healthcare subcommittee. That subject is primarily the purview of the Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Michigan Republican Fred Upton.
House Republicans plan a vote to repeal the healthcare plan, although Senate Democrats have said they will block the measure in their chamber.
“The bill itself still remains poorly understood,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former chief economic policy adviser to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. A second committee investigation of the healthcare plan is “valuable even if there’s no smoking gun,” he said.
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