The Man Who Got Under Obama’s Skin
Policy + Politics

The Man Who Got Under Obama’s Skin


California Rep. Darrell Issa has sunk his teeth into three juicy controversies.

The next few months will test whether his eyes are bigger than his stomach.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa has doggedly pursued the Obama administration since 2011. The Republican is now busily slicing up the IRS for its targeting of Tea Party groups, digging into the deaths of four American officials last year in Benghazi, Libya, and critiquing the integrity of Attorney General Eric Holder whose Justice Department seized the records of Associated Press reporters.

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Issa knows that he needs to produce results that the public can easily digest. He has moved quickly since the IRS controversy broke a few weeks ago. Congressional investigators are interviewing IRS agents in the Cincinnati office who according to an inspector general report supposedly went rogue and began in 2010 to look into Tea Party non-profits. Issa released interview excerpts for his inquiry this weekend that suggest Washington was actually calling the shots. The investigators still have 18 transcribed interviews to complete.

“My gut tells me that too many people knew that this wrongdoing was going on before the election,” Issa said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I'm not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it. But certainly people knew it was happening that could have done something and would have done something, I'm sure, if these had been progressive groups or groups that supported the president. That's what I think we know.”

His challenge involves retaining credibility as an objective investigator while still playing a highly partisan game. He has personally endured attacks for being arrested in the 1970s for auto theft. The charges were dropped and Issa went on to accumulate a fortune estimated to total $450 million from the car alarm business.

At Issa’s behest last year, the Treasury Inspect General for Tax Administration launched an audit into IRS excessively scrutinizing conservative organizations. Issa received updates about the progress being made by the inspector general’s office

The eventual report issued last month briefly appeared to remove the stain of partisanship by claiming that no political pressures caused the targeting. But the stain resurfaced immediately.

The White House story about when administration officials learned of the audit was repeatedly amended and corrected. Obama press secretary Jay Carney has emphasized that there was a “cardinal rule” to not interfere with the inspector general, once the Treasury Department and White House lawyers learned about the report.

Issa denounced Carney on CNN this week as a “paid liar” for insisting that the problem stemmed solely from the Cincinnati field office.

Former White House senior adviser David Plouffe nastily tweeted in response, “Strong words from Mr. Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler.” The arson claim stems from a 1982 fire at a warehouse where Issa was storing electronics, an allegation that dogged him in a failed 1998 Senate bid.

Attorney General Eric Holder—at a recent committee hearing—said Issa’s insinuations of corruption are “unacceptable” and “shameful.”

The name-calling is as much a reflection of the Obama administration as it is of Issa’s probes.

“It looks like they are getting under the administration’s skin,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who was chairman of the Oversight Committee from 2003 to 2007. “The administration has never found a rhythm of how you can take a punch from someone one day and join hands with them the next day.”

Davis, who now works for Deloitte Consulting, said the administration has enhanced Issa’s authority by taking the “fight into the gutter.” The Oversight Committee plans to dig deeper into the IRS with hearings on Thursday about another inspector general report showing the agency spent $50 million on conferences.

“Once you start looking under the hood on this stuff, it gets ugly,” Davis said. “You may be looking for one thing, and you find four or five other things.”

As would be expected in a divided government, the committee has a natural bias toward going after the opposing side, a mission that Issa tried zealously to fulfill at first. He denounced President Obama’s administration in 2011 as “one of the most corrupt” in U.S. history, but he never delivered on that bit of hyperbole.

The committee has previously examined the mortgage crisis, stimulus aid for alternative energy companies, and the “Fast and Furious” scandal in which Mexican drug cartels obtained about 2,000 firearms as part of a botched sting operation.

Each of those cases have generated more heat than light, with Issa saying that the administration has not been cooperative in sharing documents tied to Fast and Furious and dragged out the inquiry for months.

It was thought that the summer and fall would revolve around budget and debt ceiling negotiations, where more familiar names such as House Budget Committee Chairman Raul Ryan (R-WI) would play a starring role.

Instead, Issa has been in the spotlight—profiled in the hometown San Diego Union-Tribune and portrayed in a Saturday Night Live sketch. The question is whether he can deliver under pressure.

Angela Canterbury, director of pubic policy for the Project On Government Oversight, has been following the work of Issa’s committee.

She noted that the congressman has worked well with Democrats on “good government” legislation such as the Whistleblower Protection Act.

But any sense of bipartisan cooperation has usually vanished when the committee looks into the administration. Issa has taken on plenty of serious investigations, but his ferocity has yet to produce much in the way of results.

“We have seen a more aggressive, partisan pursuit of controversies,” Canterbury said, “without yielding a whole lot of rooting out waste, fraud, abuse and corruption.”

The Justice Department has launched its own investigation of the IRS, independent of Issa’s. His committee has yet to stop delving into Benghazi. And while Issa has not accused Holder of perjury, he has suggested that the attorney general is less than truthful.

The congressman anticipates that his committee’s experience with past investigations will finally pay off.

“My team is more mature this year than last Congress. Many of my members last Congress were freshmen. I was in my first term as chairman,” The Washington Post quoted him as telling reporters last month, “If I’m better, it’s because my members are more matured in their job and my staff is doing a great job.”