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Oversight Insight

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Convinced that Democrats have gone way too easy on the Obama administration, House Republicans are planning a carnival of oversight when they officially seize the gavel in January.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who will head the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, is said to be doubling his investigative staff and planning at least a hearing a day. His panel and other House committees will scrutinize everything from administration environmental regulations to health care costs and troop levels in Afghanistan. Incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., envisions quarterly oversight reports, floor resolutions to trumpet oversight probes, and even solo investigations by individual GOP House members.

All this has Democrats in a panic. Launching a preemptive strike of sorts, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has warned his colleagues that "wild and unsubstantiated charges" by Issa "threaten to turn the principal oversight committee of the House into a witch hunt." Kucinich is angling to be ranking Democrat on the Oversight panel, even though its current chairman -- Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y. -- is in line for that slot.

In an email response to National Journal, Towns said he "will lead a strong and unified resistance" against any "unjustified subpoenas and wasteful investigations." He's rounded up enough support to probably stay put as ranking member. In the meantime, White House officials are reportedly considering rounding up more lawyers for the Office of Legal Counsel, to gear up for pending oversight skirmishes.

Another signal that Democrats anticipate an avalanche of subpoenas was watchdog Melanie Sloan's recent announcement that, come January, she'll step down as executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to join the law firm of veteran Democratic lawyer Lanny Davis, former White House counsel to President Clinton.

Republicans are "planning to use this as an opportunity to attack the administration in the hopes of winning the presidential [election] in 2012," said Sloan, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in D.C. and ex-Capitol Hill aide. Sloan added that she is "not leaving only to defend Democrats," but that her media and strategy skills will make her "a good private advocate on behalf of those with legal and political problems, including congressional investigations."

Democrats have good reason to fret. The last time Republicans took over the House, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., spearheaded a $7 million investigation into Clinton fundraising abuses that featured more than 1,000 subpoenas of administration officials. Burton also launched an elaborate probe into the suicide of former Clinton deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. Not to mention the GOP-led Clinton impeachment hearings.

But Democratic "witch hunt" warnings overlook the silver lining in all this stepped-up oversight, say officials at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which actually gave Issa one of its Good Government awards earlier this year. POGO singled out Issa for sounding the alarm over problems at the Minerals Management Service, well before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill brought disastrous MMS practices into painful focus.

Issa has produced a 16-page agenda that spells out a dozen government problems that he says Democrats have ignored, including several on POGO's wish list for full scrutiny. These include examining failures at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that contributed to the fiscal crisis. Issa also wants to tackle food safety, Medicare fraud, and what he calls "wasteful" stimulus spending, among other areas.

"Democrats are girding themselves to prepare for oversight, as though really looking into these issues is bad for them," said POGO executive director Danielle Brian. "That's not good for the country, and I don't think it's good for their party."

To be sure, some of Issa's targets look purely partisan. He's pledged to dive into corruption and fundraising abuses at the controversial community group known as ACORN, a miniscule federal grant recipient that's no longer even in operation. The House Judiciary Committee's plans to rehash discrimination claims involving the Justice Department's handling of alleged voter intimidation by New Black Panther activists likewise threaten to miss the mark.

Still, even Issa's critics acknowledge that congressional oversight, which POGO argues has dwindled in recent years, is vital. Said Sloan: "I think oversight is overwhelmingly a good thing. I never think it's good when you have a party sitting out oversight altogether because their party is in the White House."

The trick for Issa and his fellow GOP committee chairs will be to make sure that politically-tinged investigations don't crowd out legitimate government management questions, yet again sweeping federal failures under the rug.

In a USA Today op-ed before the election, Issa set out to reassure frightened Democrats.

"Oversight is not and should not be used as a political weapon against the occupant of the Oval Office," Issa wrote. Rather, it should "force the bureaucracy to correct waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement." In a House increasingly poisoned by partisanship, one can only hope Issa's pledge doesn't ring hollow six months from now.

"My biggest message to the new Congress is not to succumb to the temptation to use oversight to advance their party," said Brian. "They have got to think about what's best for improving government."

 
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