The Overseers

Three legislative watchdogs from varied backgrounds step into new oversight territory.

Establishing oneself as a leader in government oversight, particularly when it comes to contracting, is a tried-and-true path to becoming venerated- or vilified. With a changing of the guard at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the creation of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, new watchdog styles have come into vogue.

House oversight committee chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., and ranking member Darrell Issa, R-Calif., rose to their ranks touting teamwork. And Senate contracting oversight subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., previously a state auditor, speaks in hard numbers. They all are crossing the political divide to ferret out government waste, fraud and abuse.

These leaders have followed very different paths to their current positions. Towns earned the top spot on the House oversight committee the old-fashioned way-with patience. Despite having been on the committee for almost 27 years and leading the Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee, he spent little time in the spotlight. The soft-spoken representative of Brooklyn has avoided the blustery speeches and contentious exchanges that made the committee a C-SPAN staple.

Town's predecessor, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was infamous for dogged, politically tinged investigations and an aggressive style of leading hearings. In his campaign for the chairmanship, Towns pointedly set himself apart by vowing bipartisanship and cooperation. "Mr. Towns has a lower-key personality than Mr. Waxman did," says Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council. "I don't think he's any less focused on waste, fraud and abuse, but it's a different personality, and he brings a different style to it."

Issa's rise to committee leadership was slightly more accelerated than his chairman's. The fiery conservative, vocal on a range of issues, from technology to Middle East relations, assumed office in 2001. Issa credits his friend, mentor and predecessor, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., with helping him become ranking member of the committee. "Tom and I were friends before I came to Congress. He helped me get on the committee and helped me rise to the position I have today," Issa says. "People throw the term mentor around pretty lightly. I'm choosing not to throw it around lightly, but a lot of what I plan to do is because I got an opportunity to work so closely with Tom."

Davis says Issa understands the appropriate role of oversight and how to use it. "He gets it," Davis says. The former ranking member also sees Issa's extensive business and technology experience-the congressman founded Directed Electronics Inc., known for its flagship product, the Viper car alarm-as an asset to the committee.

McCaskill, chairwoman of the new Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight, says bringing the perspective she gained from serving as Missouri state auditor for eight years to the Senate was natural. "I decided quickly that I wanted to continue to focus on rooting out government waste, and, as we all know, there's plenty of waste in contracting," she says. "As state auditor, it was about following the money, so I think that trained me to look at things differently than some of my colleagues."

The bottom line for all three lawmakers is cooperation. McCaskill fosters a friendly relationship with the subcommittee's acting ranking member, Susan Collins, R-Maine, following the bipartisan tone set by committee chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

But Towns and Issa must reverse a history of partisan rancor on their committee. Their predecessors, Waxman and Davis, sparred often in hearings and in the press, with Davis frequently accusing Waxman of excessive partisanship in his investigations and in his tone.

Towns and Issa say they have a very productive, friendly working relationship built on a foundation of common interests and priorities. "He seems to be very concerned about waste, fraud and abuse. I'm very concerned about waste, fraud and abuse," Towns says. "He talks about transparency as well and I'm very much into transparency. So we are working together on those kinds of things."

Issa says Towns aims for a win-win situation for both parties. The ranking member says they have forged a rapport and trust. "He's honest, he's kept his promises to me," Issa says. "He doesn't promise the moon and the stars, but if he tells me that he's going to do something or we're going to do something together, I'm going to take him at his word because he's been very good on keeping those promises."

Reasons for Concern

As procurement spending continues to balloon and agencies face unique challenges, the very existence of McCaskill's new subcommittee is proof that Congress considers contracting oversight a pressing priority. "There are endless areas in the federal government that need investigations into contracts that may be subject to fraud, waste and abuse," McCaskill says. This potential for reports, investigations and hearings led her to work with Lieberman and Collins to form the subcommittee.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has a far less focused jurisdiction and a wider range of priorities. When he was named chairman, Towns said he would hit the ground running and concentrate on issues such as contracting reform, "the rights and duties of federal employees," and voting representation for the District of Columbia. But he acknowledges the committee's primary oversight focus has shifted drastically toward the federal stimulus package.

Towns consults regularly with subcommittee chairs to map out the committee's objectives. "Sometimes things will happen in the media that dictate our actions, because we're trying to improve the quality of life, so if something pops up that we need to address, then we do that," he says. "But there is a discussion between me and the various subcommittee chairs to talk about priorities."

The stimulus is a "super priority," Issa says, noting there are 787 billion good reasons the committee should keep a close eye on how the Recovery Act is being implemented. But he also has priorities of his own. Issa names the 2010 census as a critical challenge because of the long list of lingering problems, such as cost and schedule overruns for the handheld computers used to capture census data, and a fast-approaching deadline to resolve those problems. "We have to address each and every issue now, as they come up, because there is no tomorrow," he says.

Issa also is keeping a close eye on how the Obama administration approaches efforts to bring contracted jobs back into the federal workforce. "I want to make sure that is a smart hiring process, one that gives us the missing skills that we may not have today in government and doesn't simply add head counts for head count's sake," he says. Preventing contractors from overseeing contractors is an area Issa says is likely to win bipartisan support. "It's a criticism we can all agree on and focus on changing," he says.

Towns introduced legislation, which passed the House in May, to ensure state and local governments have the resources they need to monitor and report on the spending of stimulus funds, and Issa is looking to empower federal watchdogs such as inspectors general and Government Accountability Office auditors. "I think there's a huge upside potential for improving efficiency in government," he says.

Walking a Tightrope

McCaskill and Towns face a special challenge as oversight leaders during a Democratic administration. Much has been made of the assumption that the Democrat-controlled House oversight committee in particular might lose some of its teeth now. But Towns says he sees no balancing act necessary in keeping an eye on a Democratic president and administration. "As long as I have a president [who is] concerned about transparency and making certain that people know what government is doing, it's not a real problem," he says. "If the president was not for transparency and wanted to hide stuff, then my job would be much more difficult."

Towns says his interactions with President Obama and White House officials so far lead him to believe they will help him work to increase the ability of people to see what their government is doing, something he says he hopes to make part of his legacy.

McCaskill admits she was hard on the Bush administration when it came to oversight, "but I plan to be tough on the Obama administration as well," she says. "I think that's what the public wants to see." Contracting abuses often stem from a flawed process, rather than something that has to do with the party affiliation of the person in charge, she says.

Nevertheless, McCaskill says she will continue to look past politics to root out waste. "Don't get me wrong, I obviously want the new administration to succeed, but if they mess up, it would be wrong for me to hold back," she says. "And truthfully, I have a hard time biting my tongue, even with friends."

As a Republican, Issa has an opportunity to accelerate his already rising star by being the key minority voice on oversight issues. Despite being denied a funding increase to beef up his committee staff, Issa has assembled powerful investigations and communications teams. Since the minority almost always teams with the majority when working on legislation, Issa replaced much of his legislative staff. "The majority has twice the staff we have, so I felt I should have as many investigators as the majority. But having only half the slots, I had to give up something," Issa says. "I chose to retain investigation and communication and give up some of the legislative staff. Most of them understood that in the minority that was probably critical, because we're not going to successfully pass legislation unless we have the majority with us. So our job is to find ways to get the majority on board."

Davis says Issa will do well to use that staff and establish himself as an administration watchdog: "He's going to keep his eye on the ball when he sees the administration stepping overboard on something like the firing of IGs . . . I think Darrell's going to speak up. It's an important element of what he's able to do."

PSC's Soloway says it's too soon to tell whether these three leaders have changed the oversight landscape substantially. But he does see a change in tone that is far more productive. "We had too many cases in recent years of sort of hyperbolic hearings and hyperbolic commentary," Soloway says. "While all three of them seem very serious about rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, they're less hyperbolic. I think we've had a little more thoughtfulness and a little more of a focus on what's working, what's not and how to make things better."

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