When Loretta Lynch paid Sen. Charles E. Grassley a visit last month, the new Judiciary Committee chairman handed her a book — of all the unanswered letters he's sent to the administration.
“I want to know if she is going to cooperate with our oversight,” the six-term Iowa Republican told CQ Roll Call in an interview in his office. “I am very interested in oversight … and we can’t carry it out if we can’t get the cooperation from them.”
Lynch, who was selected by President Barack Obama late last year to be attorney general, will have a chance to answer Grassley's and the rest of the GOP's questions on immigration and other issues all day Wednesday.
Known for his heartland candor, Grassley, unlike some other Republicans who have vowed to oppose Lynch's nomination over Obama's executive actions, hasn't yet made up his mind how he will vote on her nomination to replace Eric H. Holder Jr.
“I want to get a feeling if she is going to be, hopefully, a lot less political, or not political at all, compared to Holder,” Grassley said.
Grassley's push for strong oversight isn't new — he handed Holder a book of letters too and he gained a reputation as a dogged investigator as the chairman of the Finance Committee the last time he held a gavel, more than eight years ago.
Aside from being a constitutional responsibility, Grassley’s philosophy has been that oversight can achieve results more quickly than legislation.
“I’m not talking just about hearings,” Grassley said. “What can we get by letter, what can we get by telephone conversations, what can we get by working through [the press]? … You use all those tools before you have a hearing.”
Grassley told Lynch he has seen myriad nominees — from both Democratic and Republican administrations — promise to cooperate and then ultimately disappoint him.
“It would really be better if, instead of saying, 'yes,' say, 'maybe;' then you’re being honest,” he said he told Lynch.
Grassley hopes the administration will be more responsive, including giving him the Office of Legal Counsel's “legal opinions on the president’s executive edicts and things of that nature.”
On legislation, Grassley told CQ Roll Call about the possibility of moving bipartisan measures of interest to the committee last Congress.
He said moving on changing the sentencing system could be easier than the others.
"I've had some different views than some of my Republican colleagues have had; it's going to be difficult to work things out, but I wouldn't say they couldn't be worked out," Grassley said. "Compared to patent trolling, juvenile justice reauthorization, [the Freedom of Information Act], I think those things are a little harder, but not impossible."
But he said he remains skeptical of a sentencing system overhaul. The committee cleared a bill last year sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., which would restore judicial discretion by making reductions to mandatory minimums for some drug crimes.
"Mandatory minimums are about the only thing that makes sure there is some consistency from one judge to another," Grassley said.
He's also monitoring what's going on in the states and the administration on marijuana.
"I see it divided into three different areas," he said. "Commercial production of hemp, which is pretty much up to the states under the farm bill. Recreational marijuana: I want to make sure it's not a gateway to higher drugs before I would vote for legalization. And medical marijuana: You ought to have the same standard as you have for other drug approval by [the Food and Drug Administration] from the standpoint of efficacy and safety."
And he riffed on prosecutorial discretion.
"This is probably something that is going to come up with Lynch, whether I would ask it or not doesn’t matter," he said. "But for an attorney general, not just on marijuana, but on anything, to signal to the whole world that you are going to prosecute some and not prosecute others. ... I understand that you don't have the resources to prosecute everybody, but you don’t send a signal to the rest of the world, '[It] doesn’t matter,' or, 'It matters in some instances and not others,' because you're going to encourage disrespect for the law."
Grassley also isn't done with the Operation Fast and Furious and IRS scandals.
Republicans have been pursuing answers on Fast and Furious for years; the refusal by Holder to turn over related documents resulted in a House vote to hold him in contempt in 2012.
Last October, Grassley, along with then-House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wrote to the Department of Justice about a gun found at the scene of a shooting in Arizona connected to the botched gun sting operation.
The letter was the fourth time Grassley requested information on a Fast and Furious gun.
On the IRS, Grassley said he and his staff would work closely on the ongoing investigation with Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
Republicans have been frustrated at the pace of the Justice Department’s own investigation.
Meanwhile, Grassley has been gearing up for re-election next year.
“The days of cheap campaigns are over," he said, though he conceded one advantage — the anticipated large field of 2016 presidential contenders who will be eager to lend their support to the popular senior statesman from Iowa, home of the first round of caucuses.
“When I have what you might call house parties or, or fundraising parties in homes in Iowa, I think I can call on a lot of presidential candidates that’ll help me get out a big crowd,” he said.
He also touts his personal ground game.
“My philosophy for running a campaign is doing the best possible job you can with your official duties, and then that includes Washington, D.C., but it also includes the 99-county tours that I’ve done for 34 years in a row,” Grassley said. “I’ve had seven town meetings so far this year.”
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