|HERSHEY, Pa.— Rep. Darrell Issa, the conservative firebrand whose specialty is lobbing corruption allegations at the Obama White House, is making plans to hire dozens of subpoena-wielding investigators if Republicans win the House this fall.
The California Republican’s daily denunciations draw cheers from partisans and bookings from cable TV producers. He even bought his own earphone for live shots. But his bombastic style and attention-seeking investigations draw eye rolls from other quarters. Now, he’s making clear he won’t be so easy to shrug off if he becomes chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2011.
Issa has told Republican leadership that if he becomes chairman, he wants to roughly double his staff from 40 to between 70 and 80. And he is not subtle about what that means for President Barack Obama.
At a recent speech to Pennsylvania Republicans here, he boasted about what would happen if the GOP wins 39 seats, and he gets the power to subpoena.
“That will make all the difference in the world,” he told 400 applauding party members during a dinner at the chocolate-themed Hershey Lodge. “I won’t use it to have corporate America live in fear that we’re going to subpoena everything. I will use it to get the very information that today the White House is either shredding or not producing.”
In other words, Issa wants to be to the Obama administration what Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) was to the Clinton administration — a subpoena machine in search of White House scandals.
Even if Republicans don’t take the House, Issa has other ambitions. Those close to him say he is eyeing a potential run for a leadership post, even though he’s a two-time loser for Republican policy chairman.
Issa also is trying to build his national brand, traveling to Pennsylvania for a summer Republican meeting. He basked in praise for his role in creating “Job-gate,” a mini scandal that forced the White House to admit that former President Bill Clinton tried to coax Rep. Joe Sestak out of the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania by offering him an unpaid job.
After calling the White House “corrupt” and Obama’s presidency “failed,” Issa reiterated his claims that — despite a contrary assessment from most experts — the administration violated federal law with the Sestak imbroglio.
He also mentioned e-mail from White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina to Colorado U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff about three possible administration jobs as the administration apparently tried to steer him away from a primary challenge against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
Many Democrats — and, truth be told, even a few Republicans in the House — regard Issa as something of a clownish figure, full of bluster and a perfect representative of an age of polarized, cable TV-driven politics. He once asked a reporter what planet he was on when he questioned one of Issa’s assertions.
But some Democratic operatives think colleagues are underestimating the threat: A clown with subpoena power is no laughing matter. Issa would have the ability to barrage the White House and executive agencies with document requests and demands for officials to appear under oath.
“He’s very dangerous,” said a Democratic House aide. “He doesn’t have any parameters. He’s scary smart.”
Lately, Democratic apparatchiks have started flooding reporters with thick files of old articles referring to run-ins with the law during Issa’s youth. Democrats also recently shopped a 12-year-old news story about Issa’s inconsistencies in discussing his military service during a 1998 campaign.
Even with control of the House, Republicans won’t be able to easily pass their agenda into law, since the GOP is unlikely to win the Senate and would face a presidential veto on their most sweeping agenda items.
That’s actually good for Issa. With little policy work to get done, Republicans would focus on fighting and investigating Obama.
Issa is temperamentally suited for the role. He doesn’t mind making enemies, he’s in a very safe district and he craves publicity. With his slicked-back black hair, his BMW motorcycle and his net worth of more than $150 million, Issa fashions himself a rebel with a cause.
Issa already brought down a governor. Seven years ago, he financed and spearheaded the successful drive to collect petitions to recall then-California Gov. Gray Davis. He didn’t achieve his goal going in — to replace the Democrat — but he made a name for himself in the Golden State.
Issa frequently reminds reporters that he has bashed Republicans too. He pushed legislation to restrict fundraising mailers that look like the census after the Republican National Committee used the tactic. And he proudly told the crowd that he resisted pressure from the Bush White House to drop his California recall push on grounds that an unpopular incumbent Democrat could help a Republican’s electoral chances.
And it’s not like Issa would be unique in using the Oversight panel as a bully pulpit.
Most recently, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) held the Bush administration’s feet to the fire when he chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He aggressively pressed the White House for information about U.S. attorney firings, demanded details about the use by Bush aides of private e-mail accounts, held a hearing on the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity and published a report on administration officials’ misstatements about Iraq.
Waxman takes a somewhat wait-and-see approach with Issa, saying he hasn’t followed his work as closely since he left to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee. He praised Issa for being “involved in some serious oversight” with the current committee chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.).
However, Waxman criticized Issa’s recent request for administration travel statements. “That isn’t oversight, as far as I’m concerned,” he told POLITICO. “That’s a fishing expedition. We never did things like that.”
As the committee’s chairman from 1997 to 2002, Burton issued 1,052 subpoenas to the Clinton White House and various Democrats. And he took heat for calling Clinton “a scumbag” and for releasing audiotapes of former White House lawyer Webster Hubbell’s prison telephone conversations.
Burton, who is still on the committee, sees Issa as possibly continuing his work.
“When you go after bad guys who do bad things, you’re going to be criticized,” he said in an interview. “That comes with the territory. But I’ll take somebody like Darrell Issa to milquetoast any day.”
Issa’s accomplishments in the past year also include pressing embattled insurance giant American International Group to release records about payments to Goldman Sachs, uncovering irregularities at ACORN, publicizing pornographic-laden e-mails at the Securities and Exchange Commission and memorably scolding the chief executive of Toyota.
It’s tarring Obama, though, that endears him to tea partiers. Patti Weaver, who has organized rallies in Pittsburgh, said Issa is becoming one of the central characters in Washington that conservative activists admire. She groups him with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — all rabble-rousers in their own right.
Yet, for all his cable news prowess and an aggressive press operation, Issa’s still not a celebrity within the Republican establishment. Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason introduced their guest speaker for the night as “Dan Issa.”
That didn’t bother press secretary Kurt Bardella. He updated his Facebook status after the speech: “Something tells me this is just the start of Issa’s outreach to the party and the country.”