The Republican who will lead the chief investigative committee in the House is planning to vastly expand scrutiny of the Obama administration by seeking new subpoena powers for dozens of federal agency watchdogs in hopes of using their investigations and his own in an aggressive push to cut spending and shrink the government.
The Republican, Representative Darrell Issa of California, who will take over as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said the government needs “to go on a diet” to help erase the annual budget deficit of $1.4 trillion. His goal as chairman, he said in a recent speech, is to “focus on places where money can be saved, where we can literally close agencies or subagencies or programs.”
It is a far broader policy mandate than was embraced by predecessors in both parties, who viewed their role as chief Congressional inquisitor of the executive administration. “What my committee has to do is, it has to stretch what it has done in the past,” Mr. Issa said.
His agenda may surprise some Congressional Democrats and White House officials who are bracing for Mr. Issa to paper Washington with investigative subpoenas in a broader crusade to bring down President Obama.
But it is in sync with the Republican leadership’s desire to be seen as concentrating on problems of concern to voters rather than partisan combat. The soon-to-be House speaker, John A. Boehner, has told top Republicans on every committee that their efforts, including oversight of government operations, should focus on the economy and jobs and especially on ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse with an eye toward cutting spending.
Rep. Issa has already drawn up a list of big targets: $40 billion a year in fraud or waste in Medicare; tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to the government-controlled mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; $8.5 billion in losses by the Postal Service in the last fiscal year; tens of millions of dollars spent on redundant programs within federal agencies or squandered through corrupt contracting procedures.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. Issa are also counting on other Congressional committees to step up their oversight efforts. The Ways and Means Committee, for instance, along with the Energy and Commerce Committee, will pick apart aspects of the new health care law. The Financial Services Committee will scrutinize the administration’s efforts to tighten regulation of Wall Street.
For Mr. Issa’s committee, which can delve into any corner of the government, the more policy-driven crusade is purposely devised to steer clear of the reputation for hectoring and henpecking that Congressional Republicans earned during the Clinton administration when they issued more than 1,000 subpoenas and repeatedly tied White House lawyers into knots, ultimately impeaching the president.
To that end, Mr. Issa has sought to play down the unfettered power to compel testimony and force the production of documents through subpoenas that he will gain with his new post in January. Instead, he has put greater emphasis in recent weeks on pursuing legislation to grant subpoena power to the inspectors general in dozens of federal agencies, internal watchdogs who he believes are even better-positioned to hunt for waste.
The current oversight committee chairman, Representative Edolphus Towns, Democrat of New York, and Mr. Issa jointly supported a bill authorizing subpoena powers for inspectors general, but Democratic leaders did not make it a priority.
The focus on spending may create less tension than more politically focused inquiries, like investigating what inducements White House officials might have offered Democratic primary challengers to step aside in favor of the Democratic Party’s preferred candidates.
But there is still likely to be a blizzard of investigations compared with the last two years, during which Mr. Issa repeatedly accused Congressional Democrats of giving the Obama administration a free pass.
And Mr. Issa (pronounced EYE-suh) is already cultivating one of the highest profiles in the new Republican majority.
He is the richest man in the House, having made a fortune by making and selling car alarms, including the Viper, which features his own commanding voice declaring, “Please step away from the car.” And he is now clearly intent on making a name for himself sounding alarms of a different sort about the Obama administration.
On Rush Limbaugh’s radio show before the midterms, he called Mr. Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times,” only to apologize later and say he did not mean to call Mr. Obama personally corrupt.
He has also threatened to investigate the so-called policy czars, including Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who was chosen to create the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Fighting cuts to own staff
Mr. Issa has declined interview requests in recent weeks. Aides said he was waiting for his formal appointment as chairman, which is expected this week. But Mr. Issa has made no secret of his plans, which he has described in public remarks before and after the election and in a 17-page blueprint for greater oversight that he issued in September.
He has said he wants his panel’s seven subcommittees each to hold two hearings a week for 40 weeks beginning at the start of the new Congress in January.
In response, Earl E. Devaney, the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees government stimulus spending, quipped to fellow inspectors general: “Guess where some of us are going to be hanging out this year?”
But even before he sets after the executive branch, Mr. Issa is fighting a more immediate battle, preventing cuts to his own committee by Republican leaders. “That’s a case I have to make,” Mr. Issa said in a speech to investigators, auditors and prosecutors at a conference on fraud prevention in Philadelphia this month. “I have already made it to Leader Boehner and Eric Cantor,” he said, “that oversight on my committee cannot be cut just to make some symbolic statement, that I am going to need the resources.”
Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, who will be the Republican majority leader, have made it clear that that they intend to lead by example, potentially cutting back in the House itself.
The oversight committee now has about 80 staff members for the majority and 40 for the minority. Aides to Mr. Issa said it was not yet clear if those numbers would hold steady.
In recent months, in his role as the senior Republican on the oversight committee, Mr. Issa has courted the inspectors general, raising serious questions, for instance, about the administration’s dismissals of the inspectors general for Amtrak and for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
In the speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Issa urged the inspectors general to work with him.
“It is important that we consider that we are as close to a team as we have ever been starting in January,” he said.
The federal deficit cannot be closed simply by rooting out waste and fraud, and Mr. Issa readily acknowledges that many examples he cites will save what amounts to relative pennies in a $3.5 trillion budget.
But his fierce commitment to do his part is the sort of rallying cry for smaller government that lifted Republicans to victory.
For his committee to succeed, he said, “We are going to need sources of waste that go beyond just corruption, sources of waste that go into the question of why do we have, even within one cabinet position, seven or eight different groups doing the same thing.”
In a brief conversation with reporters just off the House floor the other day, Mr. Issa expressed little interest in pursuing questions about the scientific basis for some Environmental Protection Agency rules, suggesting that there were not sufficient taxpayer savings to be found.
“I’ll have limited resources and limited time,” he said. “I am looking for the largest dollars of waste.”
This article,, first appeared in The New York Times.