Politics

Oversight Chairman-elect Darrell Issa: Striking fear in the hearts of Democrats

Jonathan Strong Contributor
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Here are the top three ways Washington will be different after this week’s midterm elections:

First, President Obama will have to go through John Boehner and Co. to pass any bill. Second, Republicans will be held politically accountable for their actions in a way they haven’t been during their years in the minority. And third, Rep. Darrell Issa and his fellow GOP committee chairmen in the House will have subpoena power come January.

What exactly does that mean? A congressional subpoena allows House committees to compel the administration and any federal agency to produce documents or testimony related to a broadly-defined “legislative purpose.”

Courts have rarely interfered with this privilege and presidential administrations don’t often fight it.

Subpoena power, in other words, means that Issa, who will soon be the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, can legally compel the Obama administration to hand over virtually any document it has.

Issa is downplaying his new role, telling reporters, “My job is to make the president a success” by helping him eliminate waste and abuse in the executive branch. He is also talking up a series of relatively benign subjects as his top priorities heading into the next Congress: continuing oversight of the FDA’s food safety regulations, eyeing the Postal Service’s financial difficulties, and extending subpoena power to the inspectors general across all the federal agencies.

In reality, Issa’s new powers pose great peril to Obama — and to Republicans, too, if they overreach.

Consider two examples from Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Responding to a congressional subpoena in April 1997, White House aides sifted through reams of documents from the Democratic National Committee regarding presidential fundraisers. Then-special counsel Lanny Davis and his deputy, Adam Goldberg, were beginning to panic. They had found a memo from Clinton consigliore Terry McAuliffe connecting the financial support of major donors to overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House. Helpfully attached was a handwritten note from the president telling aides to “get other names” for the overnights of people who had donated “[$]100,000 or more” or “[$]50,000 or more.”

“I just sat and stared for a few minutes, my heart pounding,” Davis wrote in his book “Truth to Tell.” Knowing that Republicans were going to get their hands on the document anyway, the White House preemptively leaked it in one of their famous document dumps.  It was painful – and in the end, politically disastrous — but they had no choice.

But Democrats weren’t the only ones who suffered the consequences of subpoenas during the Clinton years. During Clinton’s first term, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, then chairman of the House Oversight Committee, became convinced that Clinton aide Vince Foster hadn’t committed suicide, but rather had been murdered. From his perch as chairman, Burton led the investigation into Foster’s death.

To demonstrate that Foster couldn’t have shot himself, Burton staged a reenactment in his backyard in which he shot a watermelon (some reports say a pumpkin) meant to represent Foster’s head.

Burton was mercilessly mocked as “Watermelon Dan” and the stunt backfired.

Of course, some point to the impeachment of Clinton as the ultimate overreach. While most Americans considered the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky disgraceful, in the end, Clinton skated away with sky-high popularity.

Issa’s mentor, former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who once chaired the Oversight Committee himself, recalls the period as a lesson in what not to do. “He’s going to be very careful not to turn into Dan Burton,” Davis told The Daily Caller at a recent event.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who served as a senior counselor to then-President Clinton, said Issa has shown he understands the risks. “I don’t think he’s likely to fall into that trap,” Begala said. At the same time, Begala said Issa will face pressure from his conservative base and possibly Republican leaders.

“His base and his leadership, writ large, they can really hurt him here,” Begala said, noting polls showing a significant percentage of Republican voters already want Obama impeached. Issa said in late October that there is “not a chance at this point” of Republicans impeaching Obama. Begala said the smart strategy would be to put impeachment entirely off the table, as Nancy Pelosi did facing calls for Bush’s impeachment from her own liberal base when Democrats took the House in 2006.

The Obama White House faces its own peril. Top Obama officials reacted clumsily when it was revealed that Bill Clinton had dangled a government job in front of Joe Sestak, then a Democratic primary candidate, to convince him to drop out of the race at the behest of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.

Democrats say the White House reacted in amateurish fashion once the story broke, refusing to release details that might have put the matter to rest. In particular, White House counsel Robert Bauer seemed baffled by basic public relations dynamics, and unaware of how small, festering scandals can cause deep wounds if untreated.

“Robert Bauer is a great guy and a great lawyer,” said former Clinton scandal man Lanny Davis, “but like most lawyers, his top skill is not media strategy and the effectiveness of transparency as a starting point for that strategy.” Begala and others voiced confidence in Bauer; a spokesman for Obama did not reply to a request for comment.

Another important question is whether Obama will establish a scandal team.

“You can’t allow the press secretary to take questions all the time on what Darrell Issa did that day,” said Adam Goldberg, another veteran of the Clinton scandal team who has made a career of crisis communications since his days in government. “The biggest mistake they could make” is not to establish a clearly demarcated set of White House players to deal with subpoenas and other oversight issues, Goldberg said.

Some press reports have suggested Obama will pick his chief liaison to Congress, Phil Schilliro, to deal with Issa’s queries. It’s unclear, though, whether that will be sufficient.

In the Clinton White House, says Begala, “you weren’t allowed to talk about [scandal-related matters]. I’m serious. It was really frowned upon. Because, it could cripple you. It would preoccupy you. So if you were in charge of coordinating the Asian-Pacific summit, that’s what you worked on, by God. If you spent five minutes worrying about the Lewinsky scandal or Whitewater or anything else, your colleagues would call you on it. And Podesta, if it got to his level, he’d scream at you. That’s really, really important for this White House.”

Even as the outlines of his party’s historic win were becoming clear Tuesday night, Issa held a midnight conference call to announce that his first step will be to seek answers on the numerous letters he has sent the Obama administration over the last two years, when he was in the minority. “First and foremost we’re gonna ask that all the letters we’ve sent…that we get answers to them. And I expect many of them will have information coming to us well before I get sworn in in January,” Issa said.

Issa’s team is compiling the letters, most of which went unanswered at the time. Meanwhile, there is discussion over whether to preemptively ask the White House not to shred any documents.

Begala, Goldberg and others were unanimous in their advice on this: they said Obama should not drag his feet on Issa’s subpoenas. “You don’t win a subpoena fight with the House,” said Goldberg. Begala noted current White House chief of staff, Pete Rouse, is a “creature of the Hill” and respects Congress’s oversight role.