As House GOP's chief watchdog, Rep. Issa treads carefully

Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) role as chief watchdog for the House GOP has put him in the awkward position of investigating programs that were strongly supported by many of his Republican colleagues.

Whether it’s the Energy Department loans that Issa and scores of other Republican lawmakers lobbied for on behalf of companies in their home states, or a series of botched gun-tracking operations that used controversial tactics begun under President George W. Bush, Issa has had to strike a balance between shining the spotlight on government inefficiencies and not making Republicans look bad.

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Republican Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.), for example, has backed Issa’s investigation into an auto company that received an Energy Department loan guarantee.

The Michigan lawmaker supported the creation of the program that oversaw the loan and pushed for several companies in his home state to receive help from it.

In July of 2010, Upton and the Michigan delegation wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking the agency to hasten its response to Michigan-based companies’ loan applications through the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) program.

And in October of 2009, Upton and members of the Michigan delegation — Reps. Mike Rogers and Thaddeus McCotter — wrote Chu to ask him to speed up the agency’s decision on a $207 million loan to EcoMotors International.

Upton’s support for the loan program highlights the collateral damage Issa can generate as chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Issa announced last week that he plans to investigate Severstal, a company that has received a conditional commitment for a $730 million ATVM loan despite being financially stable and owned by a billionaire.

Though Upton’s committee also has jurisdiction to provide oversight of such loan programs, he threw his support to Issa’s investigation.

“A key congressional responsibility is oversight of how the taxpayers’ hard-earned money is being spent, and a close look to make sure the ATVM program is working well and funding the most appropriate applicants is a worthwhile pursuit,” said a spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans.

“Chairman Issa has initiated just such a review, and we will be keeping an eye on his efforts and be interested in the findings, as we are with all efforts to promote job creation and protect taxpayers.”

Issa himself came under scrutiny when it was revealed that he tried to get a federal energy loan for a green-car company in his state very similar to the type of loan given to Solyndra, which he plans to investigate after it went bankrupt following a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.

Issa also attended a fundraiser co-hosted by a former lobbyist for Solyndra last week.

For more than six months, Issa has been investigating the botched gun-tracking operation, Fast and Furious, which oversaw the sale of thousands of firearms to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels in the Southwest border region.

The head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was removed, and the U.S. attorney for Arizona resigned, but Issa has vowed to uncover all of those responsible for approving the controversial and highly frowned upon “gun walking” tactics employed in the operation.

Throughout the course of his investigation, however, it was brought to light that a very similar operation, Wide Receiver, was run using nearly identical tactics under Bush.

Issa has not devoted much public attention to the Wide Receiver case so far, though he’s said he would look into it as he has continued to pressure the Obama administration for answers on Fast and Furious, which might have contributed to the death of at least one Border Patrol agent.

- Information in this article about Severstal has been corrected.

This story was updated at 10:53 a.m.