The long-simmering feud between the Obama administration and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) boiled over Monday amid charges and counter-charges that each side was failing to safeguard sensitive ObamaCare information.
Issa conducted a field hearing in Dallas to promote a new report criticizing the ObamaCare “navigators,” saying they had failed to adequately protect Social Security numbers and other private consumer data.
The White House general counsel went around Issa in a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), asking he intervene to prevent further leaks.
In addition, seven House Democrats, all of them committee heads, contributed to the administration’s effort by sending a similar letter to Boehner. All of these letters were sent to the press in one convenient package.
And these weren’t the only examples of the administration pushing back against Issa on Monday. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News that ran ahead of his field hearing in Dallas over security flaws in the navigator program.
In the op-ed, Sebelius lashed out at Issa for “demonizing,” “demoralizing,” and attempting to deter the navigators.
“What opponents of the new law could not do legislatively, at the ballot box, or even by shutting down the federal government, they’re now trying to do through other means,” she wrote. “Case in point is Monday’s congressional hearing in Dallas, designed to stifle, intimidate and impugn the reputation of people who have been working hard to help their fellow Texans get covered.”
A representative for Issa’s committee responded in a statement that said the Oversight panel took pains to protect sensitive information.
“Documents that administration officials fought to keep out of Congress’ possession indicate that HealthCare.gov launched with vulnerabilities that HHS knew could have detrimental consequences for website users,” the statement said. “While this disturbs us, we recognize the seriousness of the situation and are taking appropriate steps to secure the information we have obtained and consult with experts on sensitive technical information. We only wish the administration had taken security concerns this seriously before launching its website.”
The tension between the two sides is nothing new.
Issa has been aggressive and unapologetic in the oversight role on a number of issues, including the Benghazi terrorist attack and the “fast and furious” gun-tracking controversy.
The White House and Democrats, for their part, have long been frustrated with the chairman, who they say has repeatedly put out one-sided and heavily redacted documents meant to embarrass the administration.
Issa has turned his focus almost exclusively to the Affordable Care Act since October, and the coordinated campaign to undercut him indicates the administration is taking his efforts seriously.
The administration has suffered through more than two months of reports of mismanagement about the rollout, and top healthcare officials have made easy targets for Issa and other angry lawmakers at panel hearings.
Polls show President Obama’s favorability ratings are near all-time lows, and the healthcare law, after a brief bounce at the beginning of the president’s second term, is once again unpopular.
The administration has publicly and privately fumed over Issa’s document releases for some time, believing he routinely discloses sensitive or classified information in the course of politically charged investigations.
Generally, however, the administration has largely complied with Issa’s oversight demands, sending officials in front of the chairman for apologies and explanations at hearings and briefings.
Monday’s counterattack by the administration, heavily coordinated with congressional Democrats, suggests this is changing.
The seeds were planted last week, when the Health and Human Services Department directed its ObamaCare contractors to defy some Issa subpoenas. They said Issa couldn’t be trusted with the documents he sought because of a history of selective leaks to the media.
Further, Democrats on the Oversight Committee accused Issa of intentionally misleading reporters through selective leaks of heavily redacted ObamaCare documents in an attempt to score political points.
The administration publicly aired those frustrations by challenging Issa’s subpoenas last week, and did so in a way that called the chairman’s credibility into question.
Issa was furious. He called the administration’s actions an “unacceptable violation of law” and defended his oversight record.
“When we have released information on sensitive topics, we have exercised great care to ensure that there are not unintended consequences,” he said in a statement. “Most often, these releases shed light on false and misleading public statements, whether they are made by the administration or others.”
Issa claimed a small victory on Friday, when two contractors announced they would comply with the subpoenas, but Democrats struck back on Monday.