New oversight committee chairman mounts charm offensive

Two days before the session's first hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday, Democratic and Republican aides sat down to discuss the hearing's agenda.

For most other committees, such a planning meeting may be routine, but for the famously rancorous Oversight and Government Reform panel, it's a dramatic change. While the former chairman, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, was prone to hoarding choice pieces of information and leaving GOP members agape during testimony, new Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns welcomed Republican aides to join the hearing preparations. And when Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa saw before the hearing began that an attorney he invited to testify was relegated to a second panel of witnesses, Towns agreed to combine the two panels so the attorney could be heard sooner.

The gestures are only the beginning of an effort by Towns to depoliticize the committee, which Waxman ruled with an iron fist, a partisan heart and an eye toward the television lights. Unlike his predecessor or his Republican counterpart on the committee, the New York Democrat has a reputation for shying away from cameras in favor of behind-the-scenes collaboration.

But not all Democrats are pleased with Towns' bipartisan overtures, which they say only grant the outspoken Issa more opportunities to use the committee as a GOP grandstand. "He's just setting the stage for Republicans to take control of the agenda," said one Democratic aide, who painted Towns as naive about Republicans' ambitions to push partisan agenda items. "We just think that he really doesn't get it."

Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for Towns, said the new chairman takes his cues from the new administration. "The president has set a tone for bipartisanship," Rosenberg said, adding that Towns and Issa together are "trying to keep the door open and work in a way that gets things done."

Some Republicans remain skeptical that Towns will be much more open to their ideas than his predecessor, and they grumble that Democratic leaders appointed him to the chairmanship in the hopes that he would keep oversight out of the spotlight. His truancy last year as a member of the committee does not help, Towns' detractors say. By one count, he attended fewer than a quarter of full committee hearings in the 110th Congress.

"The sense is that Ed Towns was not exactly given that job because he has a reputation for vigorous oversight," complained one Republican aide.

Still, Towns' defenders say that comparing him to Waxman is unfair, especially because efforts to rebuild the committee were delayed by personnel issues. Although Waxman ousted Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell in a Democratic Caucus battle, Dingell's aides were allowed to stay in place through this month. That has kept aides loyal to Waxman in a holding pattern in their old office, preventing Towns from hiring key aides until just recently.

While Towns might not have Waxman's tough demeanor or media savvy, his efforts to reach across the aisle are viewed by some on both sides of the aisle as a refreshing change. Give him more time to see what he can accomplish, they say.

"It's not unrealistic for Towns to try to change the tone," said one Democratic aide who has worked with Towns for years. "No one's going to push him over."

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