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11.27.10

The GOP's New Top Cop

Darrell Issa is itching to delve into Democratic malfeasance as the House’s tough-talking oversight boss. His spokesman talks with Howard Kurtz about how partisan his probes will be.

Darrell Issa is itching to delve into Democratic malfeasance as the House’s tough-talking oversight boss. His spokesman talks with Howard Kurtz about how partisan the congressman's probes will be.

Darrell Issa is trying very hard to sound reasonable.

“The bureaucracy is innately susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse,” his chief spokesman, Kurt Bardella, tells me in an earnest tone. “It has nothing to do with which party occupies the Oval Office.”

The man who made a bundle selling car alarms is about to crank up the volume on the Obama White House. As the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the California Republican could make life miserable for the president.

Not to worry, his spokesman says, Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic friends “all took liberties” in describing “the Darrell Issa chairmanship” as one of “subpoenas, probes and endless time spent to tie up the White House.” Just a little election “demagoguery,” Bardella says.

Except that Issa has moments when he sounds less than reasonable. Oh, like the time—way back in October—when he told Rush Limbaugh that Obama “has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” (He later retreated on the semantics, saying he didn’t mean Obama was personally corrupt.)

Or the time, just last month in fact, he told Politico that when he takes over, “I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.”

No wonder the Democrats are scratching their heads. “One day he’s going to hold 280 hearings a year,” says Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for outgoing Democratic Chairman Edolphus Towns. “The next day he says that’s the wrong impression of him. Where is he?”

Which Issa wields the gavel in January will have an enormous impact on whether Washington becomes mired in hyperpartisan finger-pointing. While the spotlight has been on the Tea Party renegades coming to Washington, it is veteran Republicans such as Issa who will hold the real power. And in the capital’s warlike culture, it’s the investigative weapons that have the power to draw blood.

Issa has fired off 46 letters to the Democratic majority, demanding some kind of action, and gotten only six responses. He complained about the taxpayers continuing to “prop up” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, railed about government “wasting stimulus funds on projects of dubious merit,” even called for an inquiry into school choice in the District of Columbia.

"How acrimonious that gets is really up to them," Issa's spokesman says of the Democrats.

And that provides a clue: The investigative apparatus under the GOP will be mobilized to support specific parts of the party’s legislative agenda. As Republicans set out to prove that Obama’s spending is out of control, there’s no better tactic than to expose horror stories of appalling waste.

Want to repeal the new health-care law? Issa's spokesman me the congressman plans to focus heavily on Obamacare, which involves “this massive mandate to administer a sweeping program,” and the bank bailouts, denunciations of which won applause for conservative candidates (even though they began under Bush).

Issa has complained about Countrywide Financial, a firm at the heart of the mortgage meltdown, and its “Friends of Angelo” program—which happened to give discounts to prominent Democrats—under ex-chairman Angelo Mozilo, who paid $67 million to settle SEC fraud charges.

Congressional oversight is one of those noble-sounding endeavors with a hallowed history: the Kefauver committee, the Army-McCarthy probe, the Watergate hearings. But with few exceptions, it’s a role the opposition party plays with far more enthusiasm. The Republican House did little to rein in the Bush administration, and the Democratic House has largely given the Obama administration an easy ride.

The poster boy for excessive oversight was Dan Burton, the GOP congressman from Indiana, who once fired rounds at a cantaloupe in an effort to prove that Clinton White House aide Vince Foster could not have committed suicide. Issa has a smoother style but has defended his predecessor, telling CNN: “Dan Burton had a special time in which subpoena after subpoena was required because nobody would answer the questions without them.” When Pelosi’s party took over Congress in 2006, it launched an array of investigations into such matters as the Bush Justice Department firing U.S. attorneys for nakedly political reasons. Republicans cried foul but were powerless to stop the probes.

The rhetoric will be reversed when Issa runs the committee. He will have 80 staff investigators, up from the 40 he now controls, to rummage through files, fire off subpoenas, compel witnesses to show up.

And if they don’t, will Issa get tough with the administration? “We’ll get a lot more answers to our questions in the majority than the minority,” his spokesman predicts. “How acrimonious that gets is really up to them.”

Obama’s aides will have to make tactical choices as well. The Reagan administration fought epic battles over Democratic House subpoenas, but such resistance runs the risk of looking like a cover-up.

A self-described “rotten young kid” from Cleveland, Issa pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in 1972 and was indicted on felony charges involving car thefts that year and in 1980 (the cases were never pursued, and Issa blames the cases on his brother, who was also indicted). But he straightened himself out after moving to California and founding the car-alarm company, using some of the resulting fortune to get himself elected to the House in 2000.

Some aspects of congressional oversight have the potential for bipartisanship. Both Democrats and Republicans relished the chance to beat up on BP after the Gulf oil spill. Issa’s spokesman says the congressman had “a huge frustration with the Bush administration” while raising questions about what was previously called the Minerals Management Service, the agency whose regulation of oil drilling proved to be scandalously lax.

Issa is in the Republicans-lost-their-way camp, saying his party spent way too much in the Bush years. He is also an unabashed publicity hound, though he deftly tries to shift the blame to the media.

“The ability to do a deeper dive [on investigations] is sometimes hindered by the press’ demand to get something out there, up online or in print or on cable TV,” his spokesman says. “When a story gets on The Daily Beast or Politico or Drudge, there’s an echo chamber effect.”

Of course, the committee chairman can be the chief beneficiary of that echo chamber—if he is seen as crusading to hold wasteful bureaucrats accountable rather than obsessed with inflicting political damage.

“You want to toe the line with tough investigations without falling into political grandstanding inherent in Washington on both sides of the aisle,” Issa’s spokesman says. “You should ultimately be judged by your final product. Are we going to be surrounded by questions about what your true motivation is or how political this is? Yeah, we will be.”

Yeah, that is one safe bet.

Note: When I conducted the telephone interview for my Nov. 27 article on California Rep. Darrell Issa, my unambiguous understanding was that I was speaking with Rep. Issa. I subsequently learned that I was speaking to his chief spokesman, Kurt Bardella. None of the views ascribed to Issa are inaccurate, but the attribution throughout the story should have been to his spokesman, not to the congressman. We have since corrected the article. The earlier version also mentioned Darrell Issa’s “tendency to refer to himself in the third person.” In fact, that usage was appropriate because the interview was with his spokesman. Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.