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Congressman Accountability

Rep. Issa can secure your car--and your wallet.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Before California Rep. Darrell Issa came to Congress, he founded a company called Directed Electronics, whose most well-known product was the Viper car alarm system. Turns out securing automobiles may be the least of Issa's talents. As the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he could also help save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. How? By playing a role the Democratic majority in the House will refuse: holding the Obama administration accountable for its policies and spending.

Unified party control by the Democrats creates these opportunities for Issa, who is using his position to communicate with whomever will listen. Checking the dangers of one-party control in Washington is important to voters. Democrats won't aggressively investigate their own president or his initiatives, and this is neither new nor surprising. The majority in Congress rarely roughs up its own administration. Just ask most Republicans about their willingness to play bad cop with the Bush administration. They were more cheerleaders than inquisitors. Democrats will no doubt follow suit.

It's an iron law of a power in today's Washington, a land where party loyalty rules like a potentate. When a member of the president's congressional party gets overly critical or too nosey about an administration initiative, he or she usually gets a call from the White House: "Why are you making us look bad?"

Issa won't get that call.

But there are other reasons why the majority may demur. Congressional committee leaders jealously guard their jurisdiction. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has broad authority. According to the panel's website, the committee "is the main investigative committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has authority to investigate the subjects within the Committee's legislative jurisdiction as well as 'any matter' within the jurisdiction of the other standing House Committees." This means the panel could easily swerve on to another committee's turf, sparking an intra-party battle only Speaker Pelosi could resolve.

So House Oversight Committee Chair Ed Towns--an affable Democrat from New York--doesn't want to get a call from either the White House or his leadership telling him to back off. Issa, on the other hand, doesn't face these constraints. Further, he is like the "Energizer bunny," according to House sources. "He works harder than any person on the Hill, including his own staff," one congressional aide told me.

The facts support this opinion. Issa sends out an "Oversight Committee Update" nearly every week. No sacred cow is left behind. In just the past two months, he took on OMB Director Peter Orszag and the Obama administration's Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board chairman Earl Devaney concerning transparency in spending funds from the stimulus legislation and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). He chastised the administration for talking about urban school reform while ending the D.C. School Choice program. He called for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Geithner following revelations that the department was aware of Wall Street bonuses during negotiations over the stimulus bill. And, he highlighted that $87 billion in funds sent to states in Medicaid matching funds were diverted for other purposes.

Given the Obama administration's $3.5 trillion budget, a $787 billion stimulus bill, health care reform with a potential price tag of $1 trillion and possible new taxes on carbon emissions, Issa inherits a wealth of material.

Yet his tools are limited. Republicans on the committee cannot unilaterally issue subpoenas--an investigative tool the majority jealously guards. Nor can the minority schedule hearings or pass legislation without the Democrats' consent. So Issa gets his accountability and transparency message out the old fashioned way--through tirelessly communicating. "He sometimes does three or four cable news show interviews a day," a committee aide told me. Issa is also tech savvy, a throwback to his experience as an electronics company CEO. He helped establish a Facebook page for his committee's Republicans and regularly updates followers on Twitter to promote his accountability message. He not only beefed up the communications staff on the committee, but his panel was among the first to hire staff dedicated to new media.