House Oversight committee set for major re-emergence

Obama tormenter Rep. Darrell Issa is poised to chair powerful committee if GOP wins the House.

For the past two years, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has receded into the background of American politics, garnering no national headlines for hosting the types of blockbuster hearings the panel became known for during the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations. The committee's diminished visibility is far from surprising -- it's a condition common when the panel is chaired by a member from the president's party.

But that all could change on Tuesday. If the GOP wins back control of the House, as most pollsters predict, many expect the oversight panel to become one of Congress' most critical bodies -- ground zero for an inevitable battle between Republicans and the Obama administration.

Assuming Republicans win the necessary 39 House seats to gain control, the committee will be chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who has taken delight in tormenting the White House with investigations large and small. Nicknamed the "Annoyer in Chief" by The New York Times -- a title Issa wears as a badge of honor -- the five-term congressman has vowed to bring a "renewed spirit of action and reform" to the committee and to hold the administration accountable.

"How confrontational things become really depends on how cooperative people are at responding to our questions," said Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella.

And while some Democrats have speculated that Issa will use his perch to conduct political witch hunts, others expect a more traditional, reform-minded approach.

"Darrell understands institutionally you have a role and it's not to turn your head when things are going wrong," said former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis, now director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP. "But he's not out there to score points on what he can take out of the Obama administration's hide. I don't think he starts out with that intent. They need to understand they are going to have a lot of eyes on them at this point. They wanted a transparent administration. It's going to be transparent."

Issa plans to model his style after Davis, a mentor and Republican moderate who led the committee from 2003 to 2007. To prove his intentions, Issa is considering changing the name of the committee back to Government Reform and Oversight. Former committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., flipped the name when he took the gavel in 2007 as a sign that he would intensify oversight of the Bush administration.

Issa has said he will follow a different script and that divided government will not descend into petty partisan attacks. For example, one of his top priorities, likely to attract bipartisan support, is to provide subpoena power to the government's inspectors general community. Currently, only the Defense Department IG has such authority.

As for Issa's frequently mentioned subpoena power, Bardella says the "issue has really been overblown. Frankly, when you actually have the authority, you don't usually have to exercise it."

In September, Issa's office issued a blueprint for how he would run the committee, with a focus likely to include stimulus spending, health care oversight, federal agency performance management and domestic terrorism.

Many of those topics were raised during the past two years under Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., but Issa argued in the blueprint they amounted largely to a "think tank discussion rather than a real congressional hearing." While the blueprint clearly sharpened some elbows, both Towns and Issa said they continue to enjoy an amicable relationship.

Towns disputes the assertion that his committee has gone easy on the White House, citing investigations of Iraq contracting and the recall of children's prescription medication.

And, despite polling to the contrary, Towns has not made ready to cede his gavel. His office has been mapping out an oversight agenda for the 112th Congress that focuses on nationwide foreclosure problems, the fiscal woes of the U.S. Postal Service and State Department contracting in Iraq, according to committee spokeswoman Jenny Rosenberg.

Towns' office declined to speculate on whether he would seek the role of ranking member of the committee if Republicans take control. There was a brief intraparty battle for the chairmanship when Waxman left the committee in 2008, which could resume for the ranking member slot.

A less discussed change would be the leadership of the Oversight subcommittees. Assuming the ranking member steps into the lead role -- which does not always occur -- Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio would chair the Domestic Policy Subcommittee; Rep. Brian Bilbray of California would head the Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee; Jeff Flake of Arizona would run the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee; and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina would lead the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee.

Of most significance to government employees would be the rise of Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah to chair the subcommittee tasked with overseeing the federal workforce. Chaffetz angered many federal employees and labor unions earlier this year when he introduced a bill to fire government workers who owe back taxes.

The American Federation of Government Employees said it was not concerned with a potential leadership turnover. "AFGE is quite confident that we will be able to represent our members effectively no matter who ends up in the majority," said Beth Moten, the union's legislative and political director. "Our members are patriotic, dedicated Americans who deserve respect and gratitude from the nation's elected leaders, and I'm sure they'll get it."

With an influx of anti-government, Tea Party candidates likely to join the House, the rhetoric against federal employees is likely to escalate and could influence the Oversight committee. But, Issa -- who before entering politics built a multimillion-dollar car alarm business -- is not an enemy of front-line workers, Davis said.

"Darrell will be pro-federal employee but he will not be pro-union," he said. Issa will be "a friend to federal executives in giving them the right tools they need to get the job done," Davis added.

Battle-Free Zone

While the battle for control of the Senate has deepened and could come down to a handful of seats, there is no such jockeying for control of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Observers note that Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, maintain some of the most congenial working relationships in the chamber, often voting in unison and siding together on contentious issues. If the Senate turns over to Republicans -- which polls show is only a distant possibility -- the lawmakers suggest that relatively little will change.

"No matter what the outcome of Tuesday's election, I will continue to work closely with Sen. Lieberman to continue to build upon the bipartisan record of accomplishments this committee has set for the last eight years," Collins told Government Executive in a statement. "We will continue to focus on the security challenges facing our nation, such as homegrown terrorism and cybersecurity, while maintaining the committee's long-standing focus on reducing waste, fraud and abuse."

Committee spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said the Senate panel has not finalized its agenda for next year but she expects the focus to be on homegrown terror, cybersecurity legislation, reform of the Federal Protective Service, and oversight of border security and emergency preparedness. A cybersecurity hearing is planned for the lame-duck period between November and January 2011.

"I would think if Republicans gain control and Sen. Collins becomes chairman," Phillips said, "she will pursue many of these same issues."

While the agenda might not dramatically change, the cast of characters certainly will. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, is set to retire, while appointed Sens. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., and Roland Burris, D-Ill., will not return. If the ratio in the Senate changes, so too will the ratio of Democrats and Republicans on each committee.

And turnover in the Senate could have major repercussions for the panel's subcommittees. Most notably for federal officials, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., could potentially lose her chairmanship of the Contracting Oversight Subcommittee to Republican Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. McCaskill has been the only chair of the subcommittee, which was formed in 2009.