House oversight panel gets new leadership

Rep. Edolphus Towns named chairman of government reform committee; Rep. Darrell Issa selected ranking member.

House Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday elected a new chairman and ranking member to lead the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Democrats chose Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York to replace Rep. Henry Waxman of California as chairman of the committee for the upcoming 111th Congress, while Republicans voted to confirm Rep. Darrell Issa of California as the panel's top Republican. Issa replaces retiring Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia.

Waxman abandoned the leadership post in November after Democrats selected him to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman said he has not yet decided which staff members he will take with him to the new post.

In an interview with CongressDaily, Towns said he would work with Waxman to help set an agenda for the committee. He declined to discuss the details of that agenda.

Towns was next in seniority on Oversight and Government Reform, having served on the committee for the past 26 years. During the 110th Congress, he was chairman of the panel's Government Management, Organization, and Procurement subcommittee. A new subcommittee chairman has not been named yet.

"I am humbled and honored by my colleagues' support and confidence," Towns said. "There is a great deal of work to be done to ensure a smooth transition, and I look forward to working with both my Democratic and Republican colleagues in concert with the Obama administration to ensure the federal government is transparent, responsive and efficient."

Issa's ascendancy was expected, as key committee Republicans -- including Davis -- endorsed him.

During the past two years, Issa has served as ranking member of the panel's Domestic Policy subcommittee.

"I look forward to leading committee Republicans and working with my Democratic colleagues in helping the new administration of President Barack Obama root out waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government," Issa said. "As Americans across the political spectrum want return on their tax dollars, oversight can and should be bipartisan."

The selection of Towns and Issa could change both the tenor and tactics of the committee, which is charged with overseeing the management of the executive branch, federal civil workforce and government contractors.

Under Waxman and Davis, the committee became one of Congress' most powerful and influential bodies, leading dozens of "ripped from the headlines" investigations, including the removal of Terri Schiavo from life support, the outing of former CIA spy Valerie Plame and the use of anabolic steroids in baseball.

Judging by the priority lists outlined by Towns and Issa, the committee might recede from the limelight somewhat.

Preparing for the 2010 census, improving federal financial management, greening the federal government and establishing voting representation for the District of Columbia were among committee priorities cited by Towns' office.

Issa, meanwhile, hopes to get back to the committee's "core focus" of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, said spokesman Frederick Hill.

The congressman also called for proactive probes into "any critical failures of government neglected" by Democrats. "While objective and bipartisan hearings are a priority for Republicans, the minority will not tolerate inappropriately partisan hearings or investigations," Issa said.

Others familiar with the panel's priorities expect the focus to remain on overseeing federal contracting.

"Contracting and procurement are the bread, butter and soul of this committee," said Stephen Ryan, head of the government strategies practice group in the Washington law firm of McDermott Will & Emery. "These would be a very important part of the agenda, no matter who were chairman and ranking member."

Government watchdogs said they were not especially familiar with Towns, and are concerned that, without Waxman, oversight on the panel might decline.

"Towns hasn't been a really active participant on the committee in the past," said Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I don't know him. We have no experience with him."

During their years together on the committee, Waxman and Davis often had a perplexing relationship, cooperating closely on many issues but also bickering frequently over the scope and intent of the panel's investigations.

Thus far, it's unclear how the personalities of Towns and Issa will mesh.

At age 74, Towns is a soft-spoken, elder statesman; he has five grandchildren. The 55-year-old Issa has a reputation as a fiery, and often controversial, conservative. His battles with Waxman, for example, are now the stuff of YouTube legend.

Towns and Issa generally have not worked closely together on legislative issues in the past, but representatives for both officials said they expect an amicable and positive relationship.

"Rep. Towns is respected for his temperament and ability to work well with people," said spokeswoman Shrita Sterlin. "He is also a great listener and, in his role as chairman, will continue to operate using that approach."

Towns and Issa will have to work closely to address the growing number issues on the committee's radar, Ryan said. But, while cooperation will be crucial, ultimately, he said, it's Towns' committee now.

"Towns is the man with the power," Ryan said. "And Issa will have to choose what his relationship will be. He'll have to make some very careful choices."

Dan Friedman of CongressDaily contributed to this article.