Issa seizes spotlight on GSA’s $822K scandal

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is aggressively grabbing the spotlight in the controversy surrounding the General Services Administration (GSA).

In between releasing damning GSA videos on YouTube and blasting the Obama administration on the cable-news circuit, Issa locked down the first shot at grilling White House officials over the agency’s spending as he announced his powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing next Monday.

The assertive approach, however, is not without risk for Issa.

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The media-savvy lawmaker has become known as Obama’s chief antagonist by elbowing his way into hot-button political issues over his past 15 months as chairman. But along the way, Issa has ruffled the feathers of his GOP colleagues, who are also eager for the limelight but don’t have his nearly 80 staff members.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) will also hold a hearing next week on the GSA’s 2010 junket that ran up a taxpayer-funded bill of $822,000 on expenses such as a clown, a mind reader and commemorative coins. The costs were exposed in an Inspector General (IG) report released last week that led to the resignation of the GSA’s administrator and the firing of two of her top deputies.

Mica was out in front of the issue early on. While the rest of Congress was home on recess, he held a press conference on Capitol Hill the day after the report’s release condemning the findings.

Mica said his hearing would be later next week. But after Issa’s announcement of his Monday hearing, Mica’s staff moved its hearing up to next Tuesday. 

The offices of both Issa and Mica said they have been in touch with one another about their respective hearings, and Mica’s staff said the move was based on scheduling considerations. But in an election year, when Republicans are desperate to maintain a united front against Democrats, the move was also an effort to deliver the most impact from a GOP-led critique of the administration.

Issa has hit the cable-news circuit over the recess, blasting the administration and painting himself as the face of Congress’s investigation into the GSA. 

Issa even went so far as to point the finger at Congress for not doing a better job of providing oversight of the GSA, which has been under heavy scrutiny in past Congresses for its financial troubles.

“Congress has to be proactive; we have to see these trends coming; we have to have more direct relations with the IGs and with all the other parts of government,” said Issa in an interview Monday with Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren.

“Failure to do your job is certainly something Congress should be held accountable for, because we have failed to do our job of keeping after this ever-growing bureaucracy which is our responsibility. We shouldn’t fund and then forget.”

The ramped-up attention on Issa has, at least for the time being, pushed Mica to the back of the stage.

Given the wide breadth of Oversight’s jurisdiction, the GSA issue is not Issa’s first foray into the jurisdiction of another chairman. 

Issa’s lengthy investigation of Fast and Furious and Attorney General Eric Holder’s role in the botched gun-tracking operation has overshadowed any of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) investigation into the matter. And Issa’s investigation into the multimillion-dollar loan guarantee to failed energy company Solyndra has stepped broadly into the field of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Issa has been leading the charge of congressional oversight of the Obama administration. But after 15 months of investigating everything from botched gun tracking to failed energy loans, he has not found an issue that has created a widespread outcry of injustice from the American public.

The GSA issue could be the magic one for Issa, though another risk is that it could lead to questions about how the agency was handled under the George W. Bush administration and how such mismanagement has escaped Issa’s own scrutiny.

Price tags for the GSA’s biannual conference from 2004 to 2010 show spending rose dramatically, from $93,000 in President George W. Bush’s first term in 2004 to $655,000 in his last term in 2008. From 2006 to 2008, the cost of the conference nearly doubled, from $323,000 to $655,000, which is more of an increase than the $185,000 it increased from 2008 to 2010 under Obama.

In anticipation of this line of attack from Democrats, Issa indicated he won’t shy away from looking at how Congress has handled the GSA over the years, as well as how the agency was run under Bush. 

“There was a trend; there was a direction; there was a cultural shift that was making this more and more easy to do,” Issa told Fox. “So by the time it came to the $800,000 party, the fact is the damage had been going on for a period of time unchecked.”

A spokesman for Issa said the committee has requested information from the GSA about the earlier conferences, including their cost and the number of people who attended. 

“It’s certainly important to understand whether costs in past years were used for real work and offset elsewhere or if increases were attributable to the kind of lavish spending that occurred in 2010 on parties, clowns, mind readers, commemorative coins and music videos done on official time,” said Issa spokesman Frederick Hill.