From the plush chairman’s seat on the dais in the cavernous hearing room of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa peered down at Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen and offered a rhetorical pat on the shoulder, followed shortly by a swift verbal kick in the pants.
“You were brought in to do a very hard job, and no doubt you ask yourself every day, ‘Why did I ever ask for and accept one of the hardest jobs anyone could ever have in Washington?’ “ Issa said in the opening at a hearing earlier this month on the IRS' improper scrutiny of mostly conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. “Unfortunately, you’ve been more concerned with managing the political fallout than cooperating with Congress, or at least this committee.”
Issa’s probes into that IRS scandal, the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, the flawed Operation Fast and Furious gun-tracking program and other Obama administration controversies have thrust the San Diego-area member of the House of Representatives into the spotlight.
His stature has grown among fellow Republicans and tea party members, who say he’s relentlessly exposing what they see as the corrupt, inept and stonewalling ways of President Barack Obama and his Chicago cronies.
The seven-term congressman, who flirted with running against California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004 and spent $1.7 million of his own money on a successful signature-gathering drive to petition for the recall of Democratic then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, has become a “national figure” because of his high-profile investigations, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
“He’s probably been the most prominent Republican trying to understand the various ways this administration breaks the law,” Gingrich said. “By force of intellect, personality and administrative skill, he will be one of the top 10-15 House Republicans the rest of his career. That’s who he is now.”
Democrats and other foes see a different Issa: a craven, overzealous chairman with a penchant for selectively leaking partial documents to make witnesses look bad and a willingness to go over the line in pursuit of bringing down the Obama administration.
“Issa’s propensity to overreach and sometimes exaggerate shifts the focus from the investigation to Issa,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar on politics and Congress at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. “The fact that he hasn’t gotten the goods at any point reflects poorly on the committee and its chairman.”
Issa may not have the goods, but he’s gotten the Obama administration’s attention. At a hearing last year, Attorney General Eric Holder tersely called Issa’s conduct “unacceptable” and “shameful.”
Spurred by Issa’s committee, the Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress in 2012 in connection with the Fast and Furious probe.
“There’s no question he’s made the administration sweat,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor. “They’ve got to expend resources to deal with these investigations. It would be interesting to see the person-hours the White House or Justice Department spends in trying to put out these fires.”
Issa sought to increase the heat on the White House and IRS when he pushed a vote Thursday to hold Lois Lerner, who headed an IRS division that reviews tax exemption applications, in contempt of Congress after she invoked her Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to testify before the committee.
Committee Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, lashed out at Issa on the eve of the vote, accusing him of engaging in tactics that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., used in the 1950s to smear Americans he suspected of communism.
Ahead of the vote, Cummings’ office released a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that found 11 cases from the 1950s and ‘60s in which witnesses were prosecuted for refusing to answer questions after invoking the Fifth Amendment.
The CRS study found that defendants in cases that dealt just with testimony were either found not guilty or eventually had their convictions overturned.
“Rep. Issa’s approach as chairman has been to accuse first and then launch massive investigations to seek evidence to back up his claims, which he has yet to find,” Cummings said.
The caustic relationship between Issa and Cummings has devolved since Issa abruptly ended an IRS hearing last month and shut down the microphone of an enraged Cummings.
Issa apologized to Cummings but later maintained in an interview with Fox News that he’d done nothing wrong and described Cummings’ outburst as “quite a hissy fit.” Some Democrats have called for Issa’s ouster as oversight committee chair, a move rejected by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Four Americans died in Benghazi, and the IRS targeting Americans for their political views is an attack on the core of our liberty,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. “On both issues, the American people deserve the truth, and House Republicans – including Chairman Issa and other chairmen – are determined to get it.”
Issa found himself on the defensive – on conservative-friendly Fox News – last month for saying at a New Hampshire Republican fundraiser that he had “suspicions” that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a “stand down” order in regards to the U.S. compound in Benghazi.
When asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace whether he had any evidence that Clinton had ordered Panetta to stand down, Issa explained that he hadn’t used the term “stand down” in an explicit way.
Issa’s decision not to allow a woman to testify at a 2012 oversight committee hearing on religious freedom and a mandate that U.S. health insurers cover contraception added fuel to Democrats’ election-year charge that the Republican Party was anti-woman.
“I think Darrell can’t help but trip on himself and, ultimately because of hubris, always makes himself the issue,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., an oversight committee member.
However, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a onetime oversight committee chair, said Issa had done a good job of “pushing the envelope” and holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on crucial issues that demanded investigation and hearings.
“He’s doing fine. I don’t think he’s overplayed his hand,” Davis said. “Everything he does, he gets attacked by Democrats right off the bat. He’s taken a lot of hits; it comes with the territory.”
But Davis added, “I’m sure there are a couple of things he would have done differently.”
“The hearing they had that time on birth control, in retrospect, the optics weren’t good,” Davis said. “I’m sure the thing with the microphone he would have handled differently in retrospect. He was certainly within his rights to cut his ranking member off. But the optics were one that he lost the issue that day.”
Issa’s critics relish saying he has little to show for his investigations besides an expensive tab. For the IRS probe alone, the agency said in February that it had spent at least $7.9 million and devoted 225 employees who spent 97,542 hours responding to congressional inquiries.
“A Captain Ahab attempt to harpoon the big one hasn’t served him or his party well,” Ornstein said.
Issa staffers disagree. They say the committee’s investigations led to the resignations of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller last year and U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in connection with Operation Fast and Furious in 2011.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., an oversight committee member, said Democrats, and some Republicans, had unrealistic expectations of what Issa could accomplish.
“They want resignations, they want firings, they want drawbacks of bonuses,” Gowdy said. “He can’t prosecute crimes, can’t convene a grand jury and without the support of leadership can’t even enforce a subpoena. He’s got the bully pulpit.”