By Susan Crabtree - 01/24/11 09:22 PM EST
A meeting between the top Republican and Democrat on the House Oversight panel has only led to more hostility and disagreements.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is objecting to Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) plans to unilaterally issue subpoenas in investigations and deny Democrats access to committee records, practices the panel hasn’t employed since Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) chaired the panel from 1997 to 2002.
Even though Issa is expected to lead investigations into all corners of the Obama administration, he has been sensitive about returning to the days of the Clinton years when Republicans launched inquiry after inquiry on a host of financial and personal matters, ultimately impeaching Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky.
Burton chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at that time and was criticized for being overzealous. So far, Issa has steadfastly tried to avoid criticism that he’ll launch witch hunts and use his subpoena power to go after probes primarily aimed at embarrassing President Obama. The Burton comparison — even though it’s limited to subpoenas — no doubt still stings.
The committee is scheduled to adopt its rules Tuesday during an organizational meeting and Cummings said he would not support the rules package unless Issa reversed course on the subpoena and records issues. He urged Issa to reconsider and also said he would offer an amendment to the rules package to “codify” the bipartisan historical practice of consulting with the minority or the full committee when issuing subpoenas.
“I believe your approach reverses the responsible, bipartisan practices followed by your predecessors and risks returning to an era of the committee’s history when it was criticized for abusive practices,” Cummings wrote in the letter to Issa.
Before Burton’s tenure, the chairman of the panel only issued subpoenas with the minority’s consent or by a panel vote.
The approach was followed during the Iran-Contra investigation, the Senate Whitewater investigation and during a Senate campaign finance investigation.
After Burton passed the gavel to former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Davis and, later Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), returned to the practice of seeking minority concurrence of a committee vote.
When Davis transitioned to ranking member after the 2006 elections, Cummings pointed out, he urged Waxman to adopt the same approach he had employed, and Waxman consented.
Cummings also reminded Issa of his praise of Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the previous Democratic chairman, for working with him in a bipartisan manner before issuing subpoenas, as well as joint efforts to obtain information without subpoenas when possible. He said he asked Issa to publicly commit to the same agreements as their predecessors, but Issa rejected the suggestion.
“Your approach is particularly troubling given public statements you have made suggesting that you plan to issue a large number of subpoenas to Obama administration officials,” Cummings wrote, calling the decision a “watershed moment” in his chairmanship.
A Republican aide brushed aside Cummings’s criticism, specifically contradicting his claims that Issa said he would not bring subpoenas in front of the committee before a vote.
A committee spokesman said Cummings arguments make sense, given that he was chosen over more senior Democrats on the panel because Democrats thought he could be a better “obstructionist.”
Democrats tapped Cummings to be the top Democrat on the panel over Towns, who chaired the committee for the last four years, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the next most senior.
"Since assuming the position as ranking member, it is evident that obstruction is the only agenda Mr. Cummings is interested in pursuing. Ultimately, the fellow Democratic members of the Committee will have to judge for themselves if they are comfortable with following his path of unilateral obstructionism,” the spokesman said.