Policy

Issa and Cummings Relationship Frays Over Obamacare Documents (Updated)

Cummings, left, and Issa have sparred over Issa's handling of sensitive documents. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated Dec. 16, 7:10 p.m. | This December, Darrell Issa and Elijah E. Cummings are sending each other letters, not Christmas cards.

The already acrimonious relationship between Republicans and Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reached a fever pitch Friday after the two sides traded several rounds of warring press releases.

Issa, the California Republican and chairman of the panel, broadcast his concerns over the administration's attempt to block access to HealthCare.gov documents, while Cummings, the ranking Democrat from Maryland, blasted Issa for issuing an "unnecessary and confrontational subpoena" while Cummings was away in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

First, on Friday, Cummings sent an eight-page letter to Issa asking him to "abandon" his subpoena for security documents from HealthCare.gov contractor MITRE. Then Issa sent out two press releases — separated by about three hours — dinging the Department of Health and Human Services for requesting that contractors ignore subpoena requests from the committee and praising the decision of the contractors to instead ignore the administration and turn over the documents.

Not that either side got the other's press releases; in a mark of how well the Republicans and Democrats work together, they don't include each other on their emailing lists — "if that tells you anything," as one Democratic committee staffer put it.

The spat was ignited by an HHS missive to Issa noting they did not trust him to not leak sensitive security documents. HHS also said it had directed the security contractors to not comply with Issa's subpoena.

In his letter, Cummings very publicly wondered why Issa would need his own copies of the documents, given that HHS made the documents available at its headquarters for the panel on Dec. 6. A Democratic committee staffer told CQ Roll Call on Friday that HHS has "not not given access to everything; they just want to make sure that sensitive documents are treated sensitively.”

Cummings also hit Issa for issuing the MITRE subpoena while he was in South Africa, mourning Mandela's death.

"I was surprised to learn that you had issued a subpoena while I was away demanding that MITRE produce copies of unredacted Security Control Assessments by noon today," the Marlyand Democrat wrote on Friday.

Cummings seemed to conclude that the only reason Issa would want his own copies of the documents would be to leak them to the public.

"Since you became Chairman of the Committee in 2011, you and your staff have engaged in a reckless pattern of leaking sensitive information and documents to promote political narratives that turn out to be inaccurate after further investigation," Cummings wrote, referring to incidents when Issa leaked information on the "Fast and Furious" investigation, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the IRS political targeting scandal.

But a GOP committee aide told CQ Roll Call on Friday that Issa leaks this information "because people like Elijah Cummings are misleading the people about what that information contains.”

Indeed, the aide said the reason Democrats were so mad about Issa leaking information in the past was "somewhere between them saying false things and getting upset when we call them on it.”

Republicans note that both MITRE and another HealthCare.gov contractor, CCSi, concluded that they had no other choice but to comply with the subpoenas from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, despite an insistence from HHS that the contractors ignore the request. Republicans said the administration was effectively asking contractors to break the law.

“MITRE’s decision is a rejection of efforts by the White House to obstruct oversight,” Issa said in a release Friday afternoon.

"Americans should be disturbed that this Administration is trying to stop government contractors from providing Congress with documents related to the decision to launch HealthCare.gov while known and serious security vulnerabilities were and still may be present," Issa also wrote in his release regarding CCSi's decision to turn over documents.

Democrats say the administration just wanted to review the documents to determine whether they're sensitive, while Republicans say the administration just wanted to keep the documents out of the public's eye.

Either way, Republican staffers note that Issa plans to respond to Cummings' letter, while Democrats note that Republicans have yet to respond to a request for Cummings and Issa to discuss how they'll treat HealthCare.gov documents internally in the committee.

Update 7:10 p.m.

The spat between Issa and Cummings continued into Monday, with the top Democrats on seven House committees sending a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urging them to hold an immediate classified briefing with top administration cyber officials regarding the risks associated with disclosing documents related to HealthCare.gov.

In the letter — signed by the top Democrats on the Oversight and Government Reform, Energy and Commerce, Armed Services, Homeland Security, Intelligence, Education and the Workforce, and Ways and Means committees— the Democrats write that they don't think the documents should have ever been provided to the Oversight and Government committee "without adequate protocols to safeguard their contents."

"But now that they have," the Democrats write, "we have an obligation to understand the harm that would be caused if these documents were disclosed. It is reckless in the extreme for Chairman Issa or any member to possess these documents without a full understanding of the extremely sensitive information they contain and the widespread damage that could be caused if they got into the wrong hands.”

On Friday night, Cummings and other top Democrats on the Oversight panel also sent Issa another letter seeking a special meeting to establish committee procedures for handling the documents.

The letter reminded Issa that, under House rules, he can't share copies of the subpoenaed documents with anyone outside of members or staff until he holds a special meeting to adopt a protocol to safeguard the documents or otherwise seeks approval of the full panel.