Off the leash

    The newly empowered House Republicans are locking and loading for their 2011 assault on the Obama administration, predictably taking aim at domestic spending and the health reform law. In their quest to re-litigate the last two years, they have an extensive list of things they want to undo. And one of their lead actors will be Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House’s top oversight committee, who made it quite clear on TV yesterday that his non-stop investigations will be tailored to put the White House on trial during the long run up to the ’12 presidential elections.Granted, it is Congress’ job to check and balance the White House – and this job is typically performed most rigorously when the opposition party runs Congress. But not all investigations are equally legitimate; too often, overzealous lawmakers wield the gavel for nakedly partisan reasons – behaving, in essence, like watchdogs off the leash. Witness, for instance, the Republican oversight chairmen who went after Bill Clinton during the ’90s, with all the obsessiveness of Inspector Javert pursuing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. At one point, they took 140 hours of sworn testimony while trying to determine whether Clinton misused his Christmas card list. At another point (and this is my personal favorite), oversight chairman Dan Burton, who believed that White House aide and suicide victim Vince Foster had actually been murdered by the Clintons, sought to prove his crackpot theory by arranging his own ballistics test. He got a gun, marched into his backyard, and shot a pumpkin.Let us be charitable and assume that Issa is not nearly this nuts. He wants to determine whether the Obama administration is prepared to prevent further WikiLeaks disclosures; he wants to learn more about the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the foreclosure crisis. Can’t argue with those. And Issa reportedly sounded an early alarm about the Minerals Management Service, the inept Interior Department outpost that was lax about Gulf oil drilling long before the BP spill.The problem is, we all basically know where Issa is coming from. He’s a weapon in the GOP arsenal, an essential soldier in the battle to soften up Obama for 2012. In that role, Issa talks the talk. Several months ago, while appearing on the radio show hosted by de facto Republican party chairman Rush Limbaugh, he offered a prediction about his imminent tenure as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, and added a personal assessment of Barack Obama: “It’s going to be acrimonious. There’s no question. He has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”I’d leave it to the historians to fact-check that latter sentence; at minimum, his remark told us plenty about his right-wing instincts – hardly the best advertisement for an incoming chairman who supposedly would prefer to be seen as nonpartisan.Yesterday, on CNN, he was asked about that remark. He replied:”I corrected – what I meant to say – you know, on live radio, with Rush going back and forth, and, by the way, that was because Rush had me on to answer the question of – about coming together, having compromise. He didn’t like the compromise word, when I said we’re going to agree to disagree and then we’re going to find a kind of common ground, the kind of compromise that makes – and gets things done.”Strip away all his sputtering, and here was the gist: Rush “didn’t like the compromise word,” and so, amidst all the “back and forth,” Issa got into the spirit of things by trashing Obama as one of the great sleazebags in modern times. Which is precisely what he had to do, because, in his new oversight role, he must ensure that Rush’s followers are happy with his work. From time to time, he’ll need to feed them hefty servings of red meat; trash-talking with Rush was merely an appetizer.On the other hand, he doesn’t want to appear totally unhinged – which is why, yesterday, he scrambed to distance himself from his ’09 contention that a minor political incident was “Obama’s Watergate.” Remember when the White House supposedly tried to persuade Joe Sestak to leave the Pennsyvania Senate race by offering him a job? At the time, Issa said this constituted an impeachable offense – a pricelessly hilarious claim, given the fact that every administration, of every political persuasion, has sought to influence elections by encouraging or discouraging candidacies. As Ron Kaufman, political director for the senior President Bush, scoffed last spring, “Tell me a White House that didn’t do this, back to George Washington.”Anyway, last year, Issa was signaling that he wanted to investigate “the Joe Sestak case” as an impeachable offense. But yesterday, he downgraded the case to “an example of misconduct.” He conceded, “It turns out that Republicans and previous administrations thought it was OK” to influence elections. Therefore, he won’t investigate the Sestak case. So much for “Obama’s Watergate.”Issa plans instead to focus on policy issues – such as “ObamaCare” (employing the Republican pejorative), and the economic stimulus law. Yesterday, for instance, he inveighed against “a trillion-dollar stimulus that didn’t create jobs.” Well, here we go again. His investigations won’t be very productive if they rely solely on the usual fact-challenged Republican mantras. Five months ago, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded in a report that the stimulus law “lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 percentage points and 1.8 percentage points” and “increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million.”In other words, absent the stimulus, the job situation would be markedly worse. As a political message for Democrats last autumn, that was a loser. Nevertheless, it’s empirically false to contend, as Issa did again yesterday, that the stimulus “didn’t create jobs,” or (as an autumn Republican talking point similarly put it) that the stimulus “has done nothing to reduce unemployment.” The CBO figures speak for themselves (although, of course, conservatives naturally respond by attacking the credibility of the CBO.)Asked about this on CNN yesterday, Issa basically dismissed the idea that government spending creates jobs. (“There’s not a lot of ripple effect in that kind of spending” and “Stimulus should have been about private-sector creation.”) Again, it’s a pity that the new oversight chairman will be launching probes based on false and ahistorical assumptions. The government has been creating jobs since the 19th century, even if we only count the federally-financed railroad, turnpike, canal, and highway projects, not to mention the New Deal initiatives that put millions to work. And, with respect to job creation, there has certainly been “a lot of ripple effect” among the employers who have long relied on the billions of dollars in government contracts.And if government spending has no discernible economic impact, how come congressional Republicans keep trying to land federal pork for their districts? For instance, I have a list of the fiscal ’09 earmarks for one particular district – including a regional airport, a road interchange, some nursing programs, a community clinic curriculum, and a bunch of other things, totaling more than $118 million. Care to guess who’s listed as the “requesting member?” Darrell Issa.On election eve in 2010, Issa publicly stated: “Oversight is not and should not be used as a political weapon against the occupant of the White House.” Somehow, that reminds me of the joke about the Arizona real estate salesman who promises a view of the ocean.——-By the way, Issa gets a passing mention in my Sunday newspaper column, which forecasts a return to gridlock in 2011.

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