Despite vicious partisan sniping on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee over the panel’s investigation of the “Fast and Furious” gun-smuggling operation, it appeared recently that there was a chance to turn the page on the party warfare that culminated in the House voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
Just days after that vote, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) took aim at some lawmakers from his own party by releasing a report that said defunct mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corp. offered special discounts on home loans, which it used to help influence Congress and the White House, to hundreds of Washington, D.C., officials, including key lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
The committee’s leaders have also conducted other more bipartisan probes — including of a Secret Service prostitution scandal and a lavish General Service Administration conference in Las Vegas.
The panel also secured House passage of the DATA Act, which requires agencies to publish spending information online in a searchable format.
But the partisan fuse might have been reignited Wednesday, when the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the Justice Department and an independent ethics office to examine whether Issa broke any laws or House rules when he disclosed the contents of a sealed wiretap application in the Congressional Record.
Roll Call first reported late last month that Issa, during floor debate on the contempt vote, entered into the record a letter to Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) that quoted from and described a wiretap application that has become central in the panel’s Fast and Furious probe.
The two CREW requests, which were lodged in the form of letters to Holder and the Office of Congressional Ethics, suggest that though there is a constitutional clause that largely protects lawmakers from prosecution for their official actions, there are other applicable laws and House rules that the two bodies could use to target Issa.
“Although the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution may shield Rep. Issa from prosecution for placing the contents of the sealed wiretap application into the Congressional Record, it would not prevent prosecuting him for discussing the sealed matter with reporters or taking steps to ensure the dissemination of the wiretap application to reporters for publication,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote to Holder.
“Even if under the strictures of the Speech or Debate Clause Rep. Issa cannot be prosecuted for disclosing the warrant application, he nevertheless is still subject to House disciplinary procedures,” Sloan wrote to OCE Chief Counsel Omar Ashmawy.
Holder and Cummings have said that the wiretap applications were not detailed enough for senior DOJ officials to be aware of the tactics used by agents in the operation. Issa has stated otherwise.
“The wiretap affidavit details that agents were well aware that large sums of money were being used to purchase a large number of firearms, many of which were flowing across the border,” Issa’s May 24 letter to Cummings said.
An Issa spokesman dismissed the complaints as a partisan attack and accused CREW of having a liberal agenda.
“It is shameful that an organization purporting to support good and transparent government is instead making itself complicit in an effort to cover up a reckless government effort that contributed to the death of a Border Patrol agent,” Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said, returning to the lines of argument drawn in the weeks leading up to the contempt vote.
After Issa released his Countrywide report, there was some debate about whether it was an attempt to move on.
After weeks of Democratic attacks claiming Issa was engaged in a “witch hunt” to hurt Holder, and the president by “proxy,” the friendly fire was widely seen as timed to bolster an image of independence.
Aides said, however, releasing the report over the July Fourth recess was more about the timing of other events. With postal reform looming on the horizon, the committee moved to get the report out in the gap between the contempt vote and the postal fight.
Regardless, the wounds from the contempt battle are fresh. The debate over the contempt resolution in the Rules Committee and on the floor was bitter, culminating with a walk-out by Democratic Members.
At one point in the Rules Committee, things between Issa and Cummings got particularly heated, with Issa saying Cummings had failed to live up to a promise he made to the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
“I believe Mr. Cummings has not lived up to his promise — I wish he had — to the Terry family. I believe in spirit he thinks he has. But in reality, the truth, the full truth, is too painful for, in fact, him to take on his own attorney general. And I think that’s one of the problems that goes on in every administration,” Issa said.
“In my 61 years of life, no one — no one has ever questioned my integrity. You just did. And I resent what you said. I do. Deeply,” Cummings fired back.
The back-and-forth between the two men continued on the House floor, with parliamentary decorum being stretched to the limit at times.
Hill said Democrats’ “recent criticisms may have received more attention but are largely consistent with the partisan opposition to examining what went wrong and why the Justice Department, for 10 months, failed to withdraw false denials given to Congress.
“Throughout this time, however, the committee has found areas of bipartisan agreement on other matters,” Hill said. “Chairman Issa intends to continue his efforts to engage the minority in order to find common ground on oversight and policy matters before the committee.”
A spokeswoman for Cummings expressed a similar sentiment.
“Ranking member Cummings remains committed to working with the chairman in a bipartisan way and is hopeful that the committee can refocus its efforts to address the very real problems facing every day Americans, like the housing crisis and the economy,” spokeswoman Ashley Etienne said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.