Republican Representative Darrell Issa has many questions he wants President Barack Obama’s administration to answer: Why wasn’t more security outside the Benghazi consulate? Is the White House encouraging federal contractors to flout the law by not sending pre-election layoff warnings to workers who may lose their jobs to spending cuts?
Was Medicare funding manipulated to hide the effect of reductions on senior citizens until after the election? Where are the rest of the documents he demanded on “Operation Fast and Furious?”
Issa, 59, is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a panel whose investigative mandate gives him room to roam with such inquiries. His fellow Republicans praise his questions as incisive. Many Democrats dismiss them as a partisan effort to help Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney defeat Obama on Nov. 6.
“When I look at the timing of the Libya hearing and all this other activity around the election, I think it becomes blatantly clear that this is an effort to boost the chances of Governor Romney,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the oversight panel’s top Democrat. “It’s just an onslaught of allegations.”
Republicans on the committee call Issa a determined watchdog facing off against an executive branch centered on helping to re-elect Obama. Issa’s spokesman, Frederick Hill, didn’t respond to multiple e-mail and phone requests to interview Issa.
“They’re criticizing us for playing politics,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who heads the committee’s national security subcommittee. “What would be political would be if we didn’t do our jobs because there’s an election.”
While most House members are campaigning to keep their seats during Congress’s pre-election break, Issa has focused on lobbing pages of pointed questions in letters to Obama and his administration. Issa won his last election with 63 percent of the vote and has raised $2.1 million in his re-election race against a novice Democratic challenger, Jerry Tetalman, who had raised $113,000 by Sept. 30.
Issa summoned his committee back to Washington for an Oct. 10 hearing into the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
A State Department official, Eric Nordstrom, testified that he had raised concerns about security for U.S. personnel in Libya and was turned down when he requested that a detail in Tripoli extend its stay in the country. That and other testimony shed light on the attacks, Chaffetz said.
‘Exploit a Tragedy’
Democrats said they were denied access to a key witness and to documents, and that the hearing was designed to emphasize an issue Romney is using in the effort to damage Obama’s credibility on foreign policy.
“Was this nothing but a blatant attempt to embarrass an administration and to exploit a tragedy?” Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the committee, said in an interview. “You bet.”
Issa isn’t the only example of an assertive oversight committee chairman with a partisan bent. Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who headed the panel when Republican George W. Bush was president, investigated waste and fraud in the Iraq reconstruction effort and whether the White House use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts violated a law requiring preservation of presidential records.
Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, deluged the administration of President Bill Clinton with subpoenas when he ran the committee.
Issa’s actions are unusual because of the flurry of activity in the weeks before an election, said Joel Aberbach, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied congressional oversight.
“I don’t think it’s common with the aggressiveness that Issa has exhibited,” Aberbach said in an interview.
Issa’s multiple inquiries are natural considering he’s examining what he sees as the administration’s pre-election maneuvers, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy center often cited by Republicans.
“Issa believes the administration is systematically using all the tools in the president’s toolbox to further his re-election chances,” Franc said in an interview. “Some of those investigations may show that was the case. In other cases, he may drill a few dry holes.”
A Lebanese-American born in Cleveland, Issa was twice charged with auto theft as a young man. The charges were dropped both times. He made his fortune from an electronics business selling the Viper, an anti-theft device for automobiles. His is the deep voice that warns, “Please step away from the car.”
Issa is among the wealthiest members of the House, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. He reported a net worth of $195.4 million to $700.9 million in 2010, when the center last identified the richest lawmakers.
Elected to the House in 2000, Issa attracted attention on the oversight committee before he became its chairman last year. In 2010, as the panel’s top Republican, he grilled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner about his role in the $182 billion bailout of insurer American International Group Inc.
Three days before Republicans took control of the House on Jan. 5, 2011, Issa appeared on CNN to declare Obama’s “one of the most corrupt administrations.”
Under Issa, the panel and its subcommittees have held more than 190 hearings on such topics as Obama’s $831 billion economic stimulus, the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Until the Libya hearing, Issa’s highest-profile probe was his investigation of the “Fast and Furious” operation intended to track guns illegally flowing to Mexican drug cartels. Issa suggested the operation, which resulted in some illegally purchased firearms from the U.S. winding up at crime scenes in Mexico, might have been intended to boost prospects for tougher gun laws.
The House followed Issa’s panel in citing Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress after the administration refused to turn over documents the lawmaker sought by subpoena. While the Justice Department says it provided more than 7,600 pages of documents, Obama asserted executive privilege in withholding papers describing internal Justice Department discussions after the operation.
On Medicare, Issa has said the administration may have misused bonus funds to delay the effects of budget cuts on senior citizens until after the election. On layoff notices, he wants to know about the administration’s role in persuading defense contractors led by Lockheed Martin Corp. to drop plans to warn workers their jobs may be lost if automatic cuts start in January.
Some of Issa’s tactics have left openings for his critics.
After he and Chaffetz released 166 pages of State Department communications on Libya that were labeled “unclassified but sensitive,” Democrats said the Republicans failed to black out the names of Libyans who were working with the U.S., exposing them to danger.
“In their rush to make news they’ve exposed Libyans who were working side by side with America,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.
The Libyans identified in the documents worked in jobs where they would interact with Westerners anyway, Issa said in an Oct. 20 statement.
“Obama administration officials and their surrogates are clearly reeling from revelations about how the situation in Benghazi was mishandled and are falsely politicizing the issue in a last-ditch effort to save President Obama’s re-election effort,” Issa said.
Issa produced a backlash in February when he convened an all-male panel to discuss contraceptive coverage for women as part of Obama’s health-care legislation. He refused to hear Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University Law School in Washington who Democrats proposed as a witness. She went on to become an Internet sensation -- and a speaker at Obama campaign events -- after she was attacked in crude terms by radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Chaffetz, the committee Republican, said Issa should be praised for his persistence by Democrats who chanted “Work! Work! Work!” on the House floor when Republican leaders put the chamber in recess for the election season.
The Democrats “can’t have it both ways” by complaining, he said, as Issa keeps working away.