Chaffetz sets sights on feds
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz is establishing himself as a fierce watchdog over federal employees in his first few months atop the panel — and winning bipartisan praise for it.
In recent weeks, the Utah Republican has been in the spotlight for investigating the Secret Service, federal employee tax delinquency and alleged sex parties involving Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.
All are topics that elicit outrage in both parties, something in itself that sets Chaffetz apart from his polarizing predecessor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Chaffetz told The Hill in November, upon winning the Oversight gavel, that he wanted to focus on issues related to government waste. He expressed a desire to hold hearings about the IRS, the Postal Service and federal workers on paid administrative leave. (“It’s like a paid vacation,” Chaffetz exclaimed.)
So far, his committee has conducted hearings featuring testimony from Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general whose audit fueled the IRS’s Tea Party targeting scandal.
Another hearing about “The Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government,” based on a survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, is slated for Thursday morning.
A hearing earlier this week on the Justice Department inspector general report about the DEA parties — allegedly attended both by agents and by prostitutes paid by drug cartels — resulted in a bipartisan statement expressing a lack of confidence in DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
“From her testimony, it is clear that she lacks the authority and will to make the tough decisions required to hold those accountable who compromise national security and bring disgrace to their position. Ms. Leonhart has lost the confidence of this committee to initiate the necessary reforms to restore the reputation of a vital agency,” members of the House Oversight Committee said in the statement.
Even Democrats are heaping praise on Chaffetz’s tenure, citing improved communication across the aisle and a proactive willingness to consider their ideas on issues such as prescription drug costs and cybersecurity. It’s a stark contrast to Issa, who they say disregarded their role on the committee.
“The chairman’s leadership has been a sea change from the way the committee was run in the past, primarily because he has been willing to work with Democrats and because, for the most part, he has avoided overreaching,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
A bill authored by Chaffetz to prohibit the federal government from awarding contracts or grants to people or companies with outstanding tax debts passed the House on Wednesday as part of a GOP legislative package marking the annual deadline for Americans to file their tax returns.
But another measure that would make federal employees’ tax delinquency grounds for being fired failed to pass under a House procedure requiring a two-thirds majority vote. Democrats argued the bill unfairly maligned civil servants.
The tax delinquency rate among federal employees in 2014 was 3.1 percent, less than half of the 8.7 percent rate among the general public.
“We can make sure we get the best federal employees but weed out the bad apples,” Chaffetz said during floor debate.
Democrats cited the tax delinquency bill as one of the relatively few disagreements with Republicans to date. Another will come next week with the markup of a resolution expressing disapproval of a local D.C. government measure that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their choices regarding reproductive health.
At one point last month, Chaffetz was inclined to jump into the controversy over Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of private email during her tenure as secretary of State.
But according to a committee aide, he ultimately decided against it so the issue would remain solely under the jurisdiction of the House select committee investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Cummings, while complimentary of Chaffetz, warned the chairman may come under pressure in the coming months to pursue more partisan issues.
“Of course, as with any chairman, the real test will be whether he continues this approach, especially as the campaign season approaches,” Cummings said. “I hope and expect that we will be able to work together in a bipartisan and effective way going forward.”