Vows of bipartisanship give way to rancor on House oversight panel

Republicans question chairman’s commitment to the job, but Democrat fights back.

Less than six months after pledging to reverse the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's history of rancorous partisanship, the relationship between the chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., and ranking member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has become contentious.

On Thursday, committee Republicans issued a letter saying they supported Issa in his demands to hold committee hearings to investigate the security failings that led to the attempted terrorist attack on Dec. 25. The Republicans accused Towns of creating suspicion that the administration will "escape serious oversight and accountability" because of party loyalty.

"Your resistance to hold hearings and initiate a thorough investigation threatens to leave the American people with the impression that providing partisan political cover is more important than their safety and protection," the letter stated.

Towns responded on Friday, saying he has made clear his commitment to thoroughly investigating the attempted attack. He criticized Republicans' eagerness to take their grievances to the press rather than to him directly, and said he had proposed a meeting with Issa to craft an "effective and bipartisan oversight strategy."

"Instead of taking yes for an answer, they wrote a lengthy screed that is not responsive to my letter and makes various baseless allegations," Towns said in the Friday letter to Issa and committee Democrats. "I do not want to speculate whether this indicates a failure in reading comprehension, or a willingness to politicize the security of our citizens."

Just five months ago, in the August issue of Government Executive, Towns and Issa called their relationship friendly and productive.

"He seems to be very concerned about waste, fraud and abuse. I'm very concerned about waste, fraud and abuse," Towns said at the time. "He talks about transparency as well and I'm very much into transparency. So we are working together on those kinds of things."

Issa said at the time that he and Towns had established a high degree of trust. "He's honest, he's kept his promises to me," Issa said in August. "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." That trust could have eroded, with committee Republicans questioning Towns' ability to lead the committee. Issa's letter said the minority intends to "consult with our Democratic colleagues about your repeated unwillingness to lead this committee to fulfill its proper role."

"We strongly suspect that many of them share our concern that under your chairmanship this committee has too often shown reluctance to fulfill its oversight responsibilities," Republican lawmakers wrote.

Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella alleged that Towns was creating an atmosphere even his own party couldn't tolerate.

"Ultimately, Towns' do-nothing approach and his condescending and useless staff have created an unmanageable environment," Bardella said. "I've heard private rumblings that there are those on the other side of the aisle who don't even think Towns will last the year as chairman at this rate."

While Bardella said there was "no doubt" Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was "waiting in the wings" to take over for Towns, Cummings spokesman Paul Kincaid said that was not the case.

"The congressman has an excellent relationship with Chairman Towns and has constantly supported him," Kincaid said. "He is not interested in anything other than working hard on the committee to ensure that Americans have transparency in their government and know where their tax dollars are going and that those tax dollars are being efficiently and effectively used."

In his letter, Towns said he has worked with Republicans on a number of issues during his 27 years on the committee and vowed to continue to do so. "Although that is made difficult by the confusion and vitriol evidenced in recent correspondence, I ask all members of the committee -- including the minority members -- to support me in that goal," Towns wrote.