If Congress can sometimes be fairly compared to the fabled Faber College of “Animal House,” then Darrell Issa is the latest character to get marked for “double secret probation.”
The chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee did what he had to do to minimize the immediate political damage he inflicted on his House GOP colleagues last week. He swallowed his considerable pride and reversed his defiant rhetorical course to apologize to Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings for peremptorily cutting off the microphone the panel’s senior Democrat was just starting to use, drawing a finger across his throat and turning his back and walking out of their March 5 hearing.
And the Californian made his de minimus mea culpa within 36 hours, so memories of the ugly incident might fade a bit before Congress returns for the new week.
But the disdain stirred up in the Democrats, the annoyance revealed by many Republicans and the dismay expressed by institutionalists in both parties won’t disappear. Footage of the incident quickly went viral, and surely will be revived for the foreseeable future to illustrate stories about heightened partisan tensions, lowered standards of decorum or intensified investigative zealotry at the Capitol.
That is why Issa has assured lasting trouble for himself, especially in his own ranks. For the final nine months of his term-limited time with the Oversight gavel, expect him to be under a very tight leadership leash. One of Speaker John A. Boehner’s standing orders for his members in 2014 is to avoid making themselves the story. Issa ran afoul of that dictate by manufacturing a melodrama that obscured one of his party’s winningest efforts for energizing the conservative base this election year: the investigation of political targeting by the IRS.
He had arranged a made-for-Fox-News moment by making Lois Lerner, a former top official in the office that gave heightened scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in 2012, come to the Capitol and once again invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But instead of the “What is she hiding?” or “Who is she protecting?” narratives Issa was hoping to spawn, the coverage was all about the Cummings contretemps.
It was hardly the first time that Issa’s actions have obscured his party’s goals. Not having any women testify at his 2012 hearing about contraceptive coverage under the health care law allowed the Democrats a big opening to warn of the GOP “war on women.” Attention to his panel’s inquiry into the government’s ill-conceived "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation was long ago overtaken by his subpoena fight with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. And the conspiratorial assertions Issa has made during his investigation of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, have been contradicted by fellow Republicans on two other committees.
The most recent flare-up hardly had to turn out that way. Playing by the parliamentary rules is the minimal grease required for maintaining a sense of congressional fairness, and many chairmen are willing to bend procedural formalities once in a while so as to ease the sting the minority party feels from being defeated day after day.
Issa would have secured his desired headlines if he’d relaxed regular order and permitted Democrats to reiterate what has been their central point for months: There’s no credible evidence the IRS bureaucrats were acting on orders from Obama administration higher-ups.
Instead, he gave the other side something that could benefit them more. Democrats had a second day’s worth of stories about Republicans coming to their combative chairman’s defense. (The GOP conference banded together to deflect a vote by the entire House on whether to condemn “the offensive and disrespectful manner” in which Issa runs his committee, and Boehner rebuffed a call that Issa’s chairmanship be revoked led by Democrat Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, one of Cummings’ successors as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.)
Irregular observers of Congress may be tempted to scoff at the Issa dust-up as just another of the House’s partisan food fights, albeit one that may have pushed the bar for acceptable behavior to a new low. But there are only a couple of incidents in the past year that were comparably incendiary.
Democrats, when they were last in charge, locked up the chamber and began the 2008 August recess knowing full well that dozens of Republicans were hoping to give special-order speeches promoting their proposals for expanding offshore oil drilling as a way to slow the rise in gasoline prices. (Unlike last week, the majority first went through the formalities of pushing through an adjournment resolution.)
And in 2003, the Republican then chairing Ways and Means, Bill Thomas of California, called the Capitol Police on Democrats who had holed up in the committee library in protest during a particularly contentious markup. The howls of protest only subsided a week later, when his GOP colleagues told Thomas he’d gone over the line and made him apologize from the well of the House. He wept openly as he did so.
Issa was permitted to atone for last week’s heavy-handedness with much less. He ultimately made a phone call to Cummings in which, by his telling, he confined himself to this: “As chairman, I should have been much more sensitive to the mood of what was going on, and I take responsibility.” Cummings accepted his apology.
If there is a next time, Issa is unlikely to be let off so easily — by lawmakers on either side.