Chairman Chaffetz Should Hand Over The Gavel, But To Whom?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Benjamin Cole President, Longview Strategies LLC
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House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced last week he will be resigning Congress at some point, maybe before or maybe after the next mid-term election. Signaling his intention to depart, the ambitious congressman and one-time candidate for House Speaker announced his intention to “weigh the options” and eventually “return to the private sector.”

Could be next week.  Could be next month. Just depends on what “options” he has. Or perhaps we should be clearer: what offers he receives – though there may be a faster, more prudential path forward.

Before leapfrogging over more senior members of the House Oversight Committee to become chairman in 2015, the former multi-level marketer had already flirted with the potential for higher office. He’s been rumored to be interested, at various times, in the United States Senate. Lately, his name has been tossed around as a possible gubernatorial candidate in Utah.

Fine and good.

But while the erstwhile watchdog entertains “options” and considers a premature departure from elected office, he should resign his chairmanship forthwith.  And here’s why.

No standing committee of the United States Congress has greater investigative power or more-sweeping authority than the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The power to compel testimony and document production is entrusted, almost without restriction, to the chairman. The committee is authorized, at its core, to serve as the Congress’s first level constitutional check on executive power.

A man who’s busy updating his resume shouldn’t be encumbered by the weighty responsibilities of congressional oversight. Neither should the administration be afforded greater latitude while the current chairman is interviewing for a new gig.

Previous committee chairmen have wielded the committee’s authority to varying degrees of effect under both Republican and Democratic control. When the same party has controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, the committee has tended to abrogate its oversight responsibilities and pursue less noble or purely headline-grabbing ends.

Under Republicans, the chairman’s power has, for instance, been employed to intervene with wince-inducing ease in the case of the late Terry Schiavo. And under Democrats, the committee attempted to derail, and then delay, efforts to investigate Countrywide Financial’s infamous mortgage reduction program – a program whose beneficiaries included, not incidentally, the committee’s then-chairman, former Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY)

Indeed, there is perhaps no time when independent congressional oversight is more important than when both the White House and the Congress are controlled by the same party. Regrettably, for the past 100 days, Chairman Chaffetz has spent more time on cable news parsing the committee’s refusal to investigate than laying the groundwork for robust oversight of the Trump administration.

A vigorous oversight committee led by a fiercely independent chairman may well be the best defense Republicans have against the sort of missteps that drove them from power in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Above that, it may be one of the strongest protections the American people have from a president lacking any political experience dealing with entrenched, self-serving federal bureaucrats who answer to no one.

With both eyes on the exit, it is unlikely – and truly unfair to expect – that Chairman Chaffetz will be overseeing much else. For the good of the Congress and the health of the nation, Chaffetz should hand over the gavel.

But to whom?

Leading contenders seem to be Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the firebrand agitator who founded the famously-intractable House Freedom Caucus, or the much junior Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who now chairs that rebel alliance.

Other names routinely offered are the senior member, Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN), a proud Appalachian Luddite whose mastery of government-wide IT systems, procurement and data transparency are dubious; and Rep. Trey Gowdy, the former South Carolina prosecutor and Bengazi inquisitor already burdened with the intelligence committee’s look into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

So here’s a suggestion that might work.

Give the gavel to former Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA). He knows the ropes. He’s been there before. He’s already tied into the community of inspectors general – an absolute imperative for meaningful oversight – and he boasts a well-sourced army of whistleblowers within the federal bureaucracy.  What’s more, as the wealthiest member of Congress, he’s unlikely to be swayed by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or go “weighing the options” with the highest private sector bidders anytime soon.

Yes, let Issa finish the 115th Congress as a placeholder chairman. Then get on with the business of reforming government, and cutting waste, fraud and abuse. In the meantime, spare the American public the preening and peacocking of aspiring overseers, not one of whom has led a standing committee of the House or conducted the kind of investigations into their own party’s president the way Issa has, and will, in the age of Trump.

Benjamin Cole is the president of Longview Strategies LLC, an executive management and strategic communications firm. He formerly served as a staff member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as speechwriter and policy advisor to Rep. Darrell Issa.