Remember the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, Dan Burton and co. managed to create a steady stream of outrage by playing up every Clinton administration “scandal,” no matter how minor? Or how about the last years of the Bush administration, when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) seemed to function as a one-man investigative machine, making sure that no Bush administration wrong-doing went unexamined?
Today that role is being played by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight committee. But despite the steady stream of made-to-order conspiracy theories coming from Fox News and the Tea Party crowd, it’s a much harder job. That’s largely because Issa’s party is in the minority, so he doesn’t have the power to compel testimony or subpoena documents. And it’s perhaps also because, though the Obama administration is far from squeaky clean, Issa just hasn’t had the kind of material to work with that his predecessors did.
Still, you’ve got to hand it to Issa for giving it the old college try. In fact, though many of his investigations have flown under the national radar, he’s been tireless in his efforts to find something — anything! — that will stick to the Obama-ites.
In just the last couple days, Issa has been pushing at least three different potential scandals:
• Did the White House have prior knowledge of the lawsuit filed last week by the SEC against Goldman Sachs, Issa wants to know. He noted in a letter to SEC chair Mary Schapiro that the agency’s action “neatly coincided” with the White House’s push for financial reform — currently its top political goal. There’s no evidence of co-ordination, but it’s hard to blame Issa for jumping on that one. He may have gone too far, though, when he cited a Google ad buy made by the DNC as part of the conspiracy. The ad, which slammed “Wall Street greed” and touted financial reform, was seen by people who searched the terms “Goldman Sachs” and “SEC.” But the DNC quickly said it hadn’t bought the ad until hours after the lawsuit was made public — and Google confirmed that was the case.
• Did the administration condition its bailout of the auto industry on their support for tougher fuel economy standards? Just yesterday, Issa fired off another letter, this one to nine auto CEOs suggesting that the Obama-ites may have used “leverage created by the possibility of a taxpayer bailout” to get the automakers to go along with tougher standards.
• And another alleged quid pro quo: Did the White House offer an administration job to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) if he’d get out of the Pennsylvania Senate race, as Sestak has claimed? Issa called yesterday for a special prosecutor on that one.
Here are some of the other stories Issa has tried to get to the bottom of during this Congress:
• Did the White House improperly fire AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin, for aggressively going after an Obama ally, Sacaramento mayor Kevin Johnson, on charges of misusing AmeriCorps money? A report put out last fall by Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley found that the White House’s “failure to use a transparent process to effectuate Walpin’s removal deprived the President of an opportunity to explain his action in an appropriate way.” But it found no real evidence of misconduct by the White House — which has said it fired Walpin because of legitimate concerns about his performance — and the issue has largely faded from the headlines since then.
• How much did Tim Geithner know, as head of the New York Fed, about those emails in which Fed staffers directed AIG to withhold information about their credit default swaps? Issa has pressed Geithner for answers, but no evidence has emerged that Geithner was in the loop, and this issue too has failed to catch fire.
• ACORN: Issa wants to make sure the ban on federal funding for the much-vilified community group, passed last fall, stays in place, despite a court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional.
• Credit where it’s due, though. Issa hasn’t only gone after the Obama administration: When the RNC was found to have sent out fundraising letters that look like Census mailers, Issa co-sponsored a measure to end the practice, declaring “Nothing could be more wrong.”
None of these, of course, has turned into Watergate. But that’s usually not for Issa’s lack of trying. And keep this in mind: if Republicans retake the House this fall, as polls show they could, Issa will have real power. And that means that for the administration, his investigations could be transformed from minor irritant to major political headache.
Late Update: We left off one other story Issa has been pushing in recent days: SEC employees viewing porn at work. Pro Publica notes that the facts have been out there since last year, and suggests that Issa’s decision to raise it again now may be a “political ploy” to discredit the SEC just as its lawsuit against Goldman Sachs has boosted the chances for financial reform.
Late Late Update: Now Issa is calling on the SEC’s inspector general to probe potential co-ordination between the agency and the White House on the Goldman lawsuit. In a letter (pdf) to the IG, David Kotz, he writes:
The circumstances of the filing and subsequent events fueled suspicion that the Commission, or one or more of its officials or employees, may have engaged in unauthorized disclosure or discussion of Commission proceedings in order to affect the debate over financial regulatory legislation currently pending before the United States Senate…