What Darrell Issa Means When He Calls the White House "Corrupt"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 3 2011 10:17 AM

What Darrell Issa Means When He Calls the White House "Corrupt"

There are two Darrell Issas. One is the slick barb-thrower who materializes on cable news shows and Republican events and calls the Obama administration "corrupt" or "failed." He started doing that in the summer of 2010 , did it on Rush Limbaugh's show , and did it again on Sunday . This is the Issa, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, that Democrats have fingered as a Dan Burton-in-training, who's going to use his subpoena power to bring down the Obama administration over the New Black Panthers or Joe Sestak's job offer from the White House.

The other Issa is the congressman who benefits from all this attention when he talks about the much less media-friendly, Democratic fundraising letter-friendly investigations he actually wants. In September 2010, I grabbed a document from Issa's committee which laid out the possible 2011 agenda for investigations.

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The first list: federal agency performance management, federal emergency management,federal IT systems, federal financial management, the PresidentialRecords Act, ACORN, Countrywide, food safety, stimulus spending, theSEC, TARP,  and "the independence of inspectors general." The second list: Food Safety, Homeland Security, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Health care reform oversight, stimulus spending, the Minerals Management Service, and Climategate (which Issa's staff calls "Politicization of Science").

Today, Issa comes off another round of publicity with a new agenda that sounds... exactly like what he's been saying, updated to include the relatively new outrage of WikiLeaks.

In investigating the impact of regulation on job creation, the committee plans to ask why the economy hasn’t "created the private sector jobs the president has promised," and he’s calling in business leaders to explain "about the government regulations that are doing the most harm to job creation efforts."

"The committee will examine how overregulation has hurt job creation and whether the administration intends to try and abuse the regulatory process to implement regulations that Congress would reject," according to an outline of committee hearing topics.

The committee will also delve into international affairs in new depth, examining corruption in Afghanistan and the WikiLeaks disclosures. Issa plans to request testimony from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to discuss whether the Obama administration has a strategy for combating the leaking of such sensitive information, and he also will call on constitutional experts to discuss how the government can stop organizations from leaking documents of a sensitive nature.

Issa is also pushing a broad investigation of the foreclosure crisis, but he wants to dig deeper into the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – conservatives have long complained that these government-backed housing giants have escaped scrutiny. The committee will also dig into the administration’s foreclosure mitigation program, calling the Federal Housing Administration’s chief and non-government experts. Issa and Cummings have agreed that foreclosures should be the topic of one of the committee’s first hearings.

Issa's in roughly the same position that John Conyers and Henry Waxman were in when they took over their committees in 2007. At one point, both of them went on record saying they'd consider ("keep an open mind" was Waxman's phrase) impeachment hearings. Voila, instant attention, instant pushback from leadership, and they went on to investigating the stuff that they'd intended to, like the U.S. attorney firings. Issa became a national figure by taking a bank shot and bankrolling the petition to force the 2003 California recall; if anything he's savvier about media coverage than either Conyers or Waxman. He's got people primed for a 1995 redux of investigations of picayune scandals, but his talk about those scandals are only the entry point into what he really considers "corrupt." That's liberalism and corporatism, transparency about the ugly kludges that marked our response to the recession.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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