Rep. Darrell Issa is forging a new role on Capitol Hill a year before the 2012 presidential election, which could bring a Republican into the White House and lessen the California Republican’s clout.
Issa has made a national name for himself as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee amid aggressive investigations of President Obama — who has called himself an “underdog” in his reelection bid.
But what has not attracted as much attention is his burgeoning bid to become more of a policymaker in the House. Issa is pushing major pieces of legislation, including a rescue effort for the financially beleaguered federal postal service. He might also move bills on gun rights and the Federal Reserve through his committee.
The chairman has run into opposition from both sides of the aisle as he has tried to juggle the diplomatic deal-brokering that makes for effective legislating with the attack-dog temperament necessary for a powerful overseer.
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who was chairman of the Oversight panel for four years during President George W. Bush’s administration, said Issa is still seeking to find the balance between legislating and investigating. Issa and the Obama administration need to find issues they can work on together if the chairman wants to be successful as a legislator, because the president can veto his bills, he said.
“You’ve got to learn to do both; it’s like walking and chewing gum,” Davis said in an interview. “You’ve got to learn how one hour you can be working with the administration on policy objectives, and the next hour you’re up there hitting them a little for something they’ve done wrong.”
The 57-year-old Issa cut his legislative teeth in previous Congresses, working with Democrats on issues such as patent reform and the standardization of government information.
But as chairman, Issa can call the shots on his own legislation — a position that doesn’t require bipartisan support in order to move measures out of his panel.
Issa has repeatedly emphasized his desire and commitment to work with committee Democrats.
But when the panel marked up Issa’s bill to reform the postal service, many of the minority-sponsored amendments were shot down, leaving Democrats feeling slighted and skeptical about Issa’s commitment to bipartisanship.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said he is troubled by the “narrow, partisan” tactics being used on the panel and urged Issa to take up investigations led by Democrats on the pharmaceutical industry and housing foreclosures.
Committee Democrats point out that Issa has not issued a single bipartisan committee report. Previous chairmen issued bipartisan reports on politically sensitive topics, including the Jack Abramoff scandal and whether Bush abused his executive privilege by withholding information on the Valerie Plame controversy.
Issa’s office shot back, saying that Democrats didn’t object to Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) in the last Congress when he was chairman of the panel and failed to issue any bipartisan committee reports.
One of the leading points of contention with Issa’s postal reform measure is whether the post office should switch from delivering mail six days a week, moving to a five-day service, as favored by the California congressman.
The continued six-day service has garnered a significant amount of support from Democrats and some Republicans, such as Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio) and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law The Hill's Morning Report - US warns Kremlin, weighs more troops to Europe Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks MORE (Maine). Collins’s backing will likely be necessary in order for a measure to pass the upper chamber, where it is being sponsored by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's year two won't be about bipartisanship Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (R-Ariz.).
Issa has called Collins’s approach “a bailout.”
Yet Issa has also run into resistance from his House Republican colleagues.
House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesCorporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms GOP election objectors rake in corporate cash Airlines defend delays, cancellations amid scrutiny from Congress MORE (R-Mo.) has introduced a resolution calling on the postal service to “take all appropriate measures to ensure the continuation of its six-day mail delivery service.” The measure has 211 co-sponsors.
To help clear his bill through committee this month, Issa softened the five-day delivery provision somewhat.
Issa likely recognized the need to move his bill out of committee quickly, understanding that the meat of the bipartisan work would come when it was handled in conference, Davis said.
The Senate is still wrestling with its postal reform legislation. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is looking to mark up a bill next month. Collins is the ranking member of that panel.
Issa has ramped up efforts to pass his Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which aims to cut down on fraud by creating a single electronic platform to track federal spending. It would also set up an independent agency in the executive branch to oversee and enforce data reporting standards.
Over the last couple of months, Issa has written many op-eds on his postal reform measure and the DATA Act. He also has spoken at various technology summits and conferences.
There are other high-profile bills awaiting action in Issa’s committee.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) introduced one of the most popular measures in the House — with 188 co-sponsors, including a large majority of the committee’s Republicans — that would require an audit of the Federal Reserve by 2012. Paul’s office said it has gotten no indication that the bill would be taken up any time soon.
Issa spokesman Jeff Solsby said “the committee has not made a final decision on markups yet.”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) is seeking to move a bill that would prohibit taxpayer funding for the president’s so-called czars. Scalise attached his measure to a spending bill earlier this year, but it was later dropped in conference.
Another pending bill would loosen Washington’s gun laws by relaxing registration requirements, legalizing semiautomatic weapons and broadening firearms transportation rules.
The legislation, put forward by Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), has 169 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, including Issa.
Issa’s aides contend that the committee had been pursuing its legislative goals throughout 2011, adding that headway is now getting notice.
Referencing the postal bill and the DATA Act, Solsby said, “The committee has made significant progress in moving through two overwhelmingly popular and necessary pieces of legislation.”
In 2013, Issa could have more time to legislate because few believe his oversight of a Republican president would be as intense as his scrutiny of Obama.
“When you have the opposition party in power, you tend to be over-investigative and less legislative,” said Davis.
Mike Franc, the vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, said Issa’s tenacity could be a boon for an incoming Republican administration because they could team up to go after government inefficiency, having both run on that platform.
“Darrell Issa … can separate out boneheaded activities in the regulatory agencies because they are boneheaded versus suddenly pulling his punches because he doesn’t want to go certain places and make the president look bad,” he said.
Issa has endorsed ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for president.