Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the new chairman of the oversight panel.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the new chairman of the oversight panel. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers Bicker Over Treatment of Feds in First Oversight Committee Meeting

New chairman promises to change the panel’s discourse, but old battles continue.

The House panel with primary oversight of the federal workforce and agency operations got off to a contentious start in its first meeting Tuesday, with nominal calls for bipartisanship overshadowed by political bickering.

Largely at issue was the process for subpoenaing individuals to testify before the committee and agencies to submit information; at one point the discussion devolved into a debate over how to recruit workers to federal service.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, began his first address as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee offering olive branches to the Democratic minority and with promises to work together in ways where his predecessor, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., failed. He also spoke highly of the federal workforce, calling the employees “wonderful,” “diligent” and “patriotic.”

He added, however, there are bad apples at every agency, and “we have to address those.”

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who served in the same position under Issa, said the last four years were marked by acrimony. Issa’s reign was a “stain on this committee’s integrity and an embarrassment to the House of Representatives,” Cummings said.

While Chaffetz promised to lead the committee in a new direction, Democrats met his first act -- to approve the committee’s rules for the 114th Congress -- with significant pushback. Democrats took issue with Chaffetz’s plan to continue empowering the chairman to issue subpoenas without a vote or consultation with the minority party.

Cummings warned Chaffetz about going into “Issa mode,” while Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said Chaffetz and other committee chairmen were “Issa-tizing” the House.

“This is about Republicans not wanting public debate on subpoenas,” Cummings said. “This is a big deal to us. We do not want to slip into darkness.”

Chaffetz defended the rule, arguing federal agencies in the Obama administration have shown resistance to offering testimony and information. An expedited subpoena process is necessary, Chaffetz said, to avoid further delay in receiving what the committee needs.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said Congress must treat witnesses from federal agencies with respect, or “people won’t want to go into government.”

Top-level employees that agencies seek to recruit “have many options,” Maloney said. “They can go into many fields.”

The committee eventually approved the rules, and struck down an amendment to require votes on whom and what to subpoena, by a party line vote. The lawmakers also approved a measure to give certain veterans-turned-civil-servants more up front sick leave, as well as a bill to force federal agencies to provide additional information on the expected costs of their regulations. 

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