There are times when I almost feel sympathy for Darrell Issa. When you look around Capitol Hill these days, there aren’t many people voicing their respect and admiration for the House Oversight Committee chairman. You can understand the Democratic antipathy towards Issa; under his command the committee has returned to the bad old days of the Clinton administration when every scandalous allegation – no matter how far-fetched or lacking in evidence – was enthusiastically investigated by the Republicans on the committee out of partisan spite. But Issa is also taking fire from Republicans, which seems unfair given that he’s arguably been, for the GOP, an ideal Oversight Committee chair.
I should explain that “ideal” in this sense means that Issa’s tenure has tracked perfectly with the governing strategy Republicans have pursued ever since they took control of the House in 2010 – he’s made a lot of noise at the expense of accomplishing anything of substance beyond shredding public faith in the competence of the federal government.
Issa, for all his subpoenaing and bloviating and promises of bombshell revelations, hasn’t actually gotten anything to stick to the White House. He launched a probe into Solyndra, a solar power company that received federal loan guarantees before going bankrupt, and it ended up going nowhere. He initiated an investigation into the failed gun-walking program known as “Fast and Furious” that turned up zero evidence of White House corruption, though he did convince John Boehner to let the House vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents. His storied handling of the Benghazi investigations, spanning many hearings over several months, never turned up proof of the cover-up conspiracy that everyone knew was there.
Ever since the Benghazi investigation was taken from him and given to Rep. Trey Gowdy’s select committee, Issa’s been bumbling about, trying to assert his relevance. He’s trying to undercut other investigative committees by abruptly rescheduling his hearings to preempt theirs. Immediately after a group of Republicans returned from a trip to Central America to investigate the child migrant crisis, he went on his very own fact-finding trip.
Republicans in the House are irritated by Issa’s antics. Given anonymity, they’ll say as much plainly. “There’s broad frustration with how this has played out, with the road he’s taken,” one GOP committee member told Politico in March about the IRS scandal. When they speak on the record, they tend to be more guarded, but still critical. Issa is term-limited as chairman, and already the Republicans looking to replace him next Congress, like Rep. Michael Turner, are (politely) talking about how they’d do things differently.
Turner acknowledged it has been a formidable administration watchdog, and that a major part of Oversight’s role is to hold the White House accountable.
“But we have to look beyond those to how do we look at real solutions,” Turner said, noting he felt investigations had come to dominate the committee’s efforts “to the exclusion of everything else.”
Turner knows some members are looking for an attack-dog chairman. But the best way to score points on the White House, he said, is to take on the administration in a serious manner.
“I think to hold them accountable, you have to do it well and thought-out and sustained, and with credibility, and other initiatives besides just poking the administration,” he said.
And the House Republican leadership is reportedly frustrated with Issa’s habit of making himself the story at the expense of the overall message the party is trying to promote heading into November.
Frustration with Issa’s lack of results, though, seems to be beside the point. There isn’t actually any proof of White House corruption in Solyndra, Fast and Furious, Benghazi or any of the other “scandals,” but they’re still to varying degrees all incorporated into the story of the Obama administration. They’ve been the subjects of countless hours of cable news programming and taken up more than their fair share of front-page real estate. Republicans have to be happy with that, and that’s largely thanks to Darrell Issa’s willingness to devote the government resources at his command to promoting GOP-friendly scandal narratives.
Solyndra, Fast and Furious, Benghazi – they’re all part of the conservative lexicon now. Talk radio hosts and Fox News screamers can drop casual references to them in their anti-Obama monologues and the intended audience will know exactly what they’re talking about. They don’t care that Issa never actually found proof of guilt in any of the conspiracies mentioned above – they know that the administration is guilty, and if the proof wasn’t there, then it was obviously covered up.
And Issa’s shambling has an impact beyond giving Sean Hannity something to talk about. Salon’s Elias Isquith sharply pointed out that Issa’s unrelenting investigations into the IRS have succeeded in turning the agency into even more of a villain than it’s already perceived to be, and this in turn feeds into the conservative goal of starving the government beast. “Demagoguery over the IRS and agencies like it can lead to cuts that, in the end, bolster the argument that government simply cannot get the job done.” He’s apparently gearing up to issue his third subpoena to the same IRS official in less than a month.
Issa is a one-man PR shop who understands that you don’t need to get it right to get it in the news. One of his favorite tricks is to release “partial transcripts” of allegedly damning testimony to reporters on the assumption that, in the chase for a scoop, they’ll just reprint whatever he gives them, heedless of the context. He’s often justified in that assumption. When the inevitable corrections and updates come down days later, it’s too late – the story is already out there.
To be clear, this is all reprehensible behavior from a representative who is charged with improving the way government works, and Issa is an objectively terrible Oversight Committee chair. But he’s an excellent Republican politician at a time when conservative/Tea Party anti-governance is in vogue. The leaders of the Republican Party shut down the government over Obamacare and are now threatening to sue the president, so it’s a little disingenuous for them to attack Darrell Issa for overselling and underperforming.