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Roll Call

Issa Finds Unlikely Role Model: Waxman

House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) may be one of the majority’s chief tormentors and an apt political bomb thrower, but the person Democrats have to thank for Issa’s persistence is none other than Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

“If you look at Henry Waxman, all I’ve really done is taken Waxman’s role. And the role, with the president of the other party, of the minority is very much something Henry wrote the book on,” Issa told Roll Call.

During his tenure as the ranking member on the Oversight Committee, Waxman frequently grabbed headlines by relentlessly hammering Republicans for their hesitance to look into the activities of the George W. Bush administration. And he parlayed those efforts into the high-profile chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Since taking the minority post in January, Issa has done everything in his power to mimic Waxman’s approach, with the Obama administration as his target.

Each week his press operation sends dozens of e-mails hitting Democrats on their handling of everything from the bailout of the financial system to the Countrywide Financial mortgage scandal.

His aides have produced eight reports and sent more than 100 letters to the administration and federal agencies expressing their concerns about various policies.

“Yes, I’ve produced a lot of reports, and I’m going to work with the majority to try to encourage them to do discovery they might not otherwise do,” he said. “And I’m going to work the press hard to make sure the press is aware of these opportunities to do good oversight.”

While Issa downplayed the political nature of his committee rank, current and former colleagues on the panel described the post as inherently a partisan one.

“The reality is, if you go back 30 years, [the ranking members] tend to be barracudas,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. “It’s always been political.”

Davis, who served as chairman to Waxman’s ranking member, said the trick is keeping a balance between allowing politics to play its role and providing good oversight, without getting personal.

“We kind of drew the line at going after Members,” Davis said. “That’s why you have an ethics committee and a House Administration Committee.”

And Issa has walked a fine line. His relentless digging into the scandal involving Countrywide’s alleged preferential deals for Members of Congress and former administration officials has caused lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol to question whether his motives are purely oversight-related.

“This was corporate America bribing in a novel way, even more novel than [former California Republican Rep.] Duke Cunningham, bribing elected and non-elected officials,” Issa said. “Some of those officials didn’t know they were being bribed, perhaps, but the bottom line is Countrywide was doing this in order to gain real favor and not have to report it.”

Committee member Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said the political climate also lends itself to Issa making noise since Democrats control Congress and the White House.

“Oversight is oversight. But you don’t oversight your mama the same way you might oversight someone else. Or your daddy. Or your president,” Davis said.

Democrats on the panel say they don’t think Issa’s aggressive tactics leave Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) looking like he doesn’t control the committee.

“I have no doubt that Ed Towns, who’s a very astute politician and who has been doing politics for a long time, who has been a Member of the House for a long time, knows how to handle his committee, including the ranking member,” Davis said.

Towns may be “a little bit more laid-back” than Issa, Davis said, but “I don’t know how you could come out of New York and not have the political fire that you need to have when you need to have it.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Issa “exploits his position for political purposes” since Waxman, as ranking member, did the same thing.

But even though Issa is “a flashy guy” with a political agenda, Connolly said, the Californian cuts down on the posturing when Towns needs him to.

“At times, Ed reins Darrell in, as he wants to be seen as supportive,” Connolly said. “I’ve seen Issa be very respectful, even when he disagrees, to allow the committee process to continue to work. I credit him on his relationship with Towns.”

Issa said he has maintained a good relationship with Towns and acknowledged that his approach is far less brash than his predecessor’s.

“When Waxman was [chairman] ... he was a nasty, mean, pain in the ass, asserting power in an unreasonable way — and that’s just what the Democrats say,” Issa said. “But when he was in the minority, he really did write the book on getting Tom Davis to do his job better, to have hearings and oversight on things he might not have, to point out the failures of the [Bush] administration and others, and I think that’s an important role.”

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