When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and installed Rep. Darrell Issa as the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, there was palpable anticipation on the right that Obama administration would finally have to answer for its many, many misdeeds. Issa, eager to make a name for himself, fed into that anticipation and presented himself as a crusading investigator (his Twitter avatar for a long time was a crude stick-figure drawing of a policeman) who would root out what he described as historic corruption. Before the 2010 election, Issa said Barack Obama “has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Just before the new Congress was sworn in, Issa clarified his remarks a bit on CNN, saying “this is one of the most corrupt administrations.”
Whatever words he meant to use, the message was clear – the White House was crooked, and Issa was going to straighten them out.
That never happened. Issa’s grandiose crusade failed, but not for lack of trying. Remember Solyndra? Fast and Furious? Issa did the digging, held the hearings, and hyped the hell out of the “scandal” narratives, but in the end they came to nothing. In May of last year he promised bombshell revelations at a hearing into the 2012 Benghazi attacks, but those “revelations” turned out to be nothing that wasn’t already known. The big reason he failed was that there just wasn’t a whole lot of corruption to undo. But Issa continually made things worse for himself by building the hype way beyond what he could possibly deliver.
Issa’s final report as chairman of the Oversight Committee fits neatly into that pattern. It deals with the IRS targeting scandal, in which the tax agency applied inappropriate levels of scrutiny to non-profit groups seeking tax exempt status. Conservatives have long claimed that the targeting was done at the behest of the White House, which (they allege) wanted to use the IRS to intimidate and bully tea party groups (progressive groups were also targeted). Issa eagerly helped feed the idea that the scandal reached all the way to the Oval Office. “This was a targeting of the president's political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year so that it wasn't discovered until afterwards,” Issa said last May. He leaked stale “bombshells” to credulous conservative reporters to make it seem like he was closing in on the proof that tied the scandal to the president. But the White House connection never materialized.
Which brings us to the new report. After all the promises and all the hype surrounding the White House’s link to the IRS scandal, what did Issa end up finding? Nothing. No link to the White House, no evidence showing this was anything but an IRS matter.
Of course, Issa isn’t presenting it that way. Instead he offers weasel-worded conclusions that give the illusion of a connection: “Evidence shows an IRS responsive to the partisan policy objectives of White House and an IRS leadership that coordinates with political appointees of the Obama Administration.” This is the official version of the longstanding conservative allegation that the targeting scandal happened because employees at the IRS picked up on the White House’s anti-Tea Party psychic vibrations.
And, obviously, the ultimate failure for demonstrating an actual link lies not with Issa, but the White House: “The White House’s unfortunate refusal to cooperate with the Committee’s investigation contravened the President’s promise of ‘hand in hand’ cooperation. It also prevented the Committee from obtaining and evaluating relevant documents regarding the politicization of the IRS.”
Now that Issa’s been put out to pasture, who’s coming in to take his place? That would be Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a shouty fellow who argues forcefully for policies he believes in, like responding to White House fence jumpers by blanketing the North Lawn with a hail of gunfire. Issa’s report promises that the investigation isn’t over, and Chaffetz will probably pick up where Issa left off, given how large the IRS scandal looms in the conservative pantheon of Obama’s high crimes and misdemeanors. But there’s no real reason to believe Chaffetz will find any more success than his predecessor.