In late February 1997, the second month of President Bill Clinton’s second term, the media was in a feeding frenzy over documents obtained by the House oversight panel that showed Clinton had used perks such as overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom to woo big-dollar donors.
Sixteen years later, a Democratic president begins his second term with Republicans controlling the House, and, as in 1997, the two parties are locked in a heated showdown over spending cuts.
But when The New York Times reported Feb. 22 that President Barack Obama’s campaign arm was offering quarterly meetings with the commander in chief for a $500,000 donation, the news was met with silence from California Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Issa, in his past two years as chairman of the panel, is turning over a new leaf, focusing on legislative work he hopes could buttress his legacy.
Despite the heated conflict of the past two years, the California Republican has brokered something of a truce with his combative foil, Maryland Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, the committee’s ranking member.
Weeks after the 2012 elections, with Republicans in a tailspin of introspection and recrimination, David Rapallo, Cummings’ top-ranking committee aide, approached Issa’s staff with a plea for comity.
In mostly staff-level meetings over the next several weeks, the two sides reached a tentative agreement: Issa would consult Cummings on oversight efforts, and Cummings would do his best to stand up for the committee’s prerogatives, which are some of the most far-reaching in government.
“So far, so good,” Cummings said, reflecting on the joint efforts the duo has produced in the first two months of the new era.
Both men signed a letter hitting Obama for his failure to nominate an inspector general at the State Department in the previous four years, signed another letter to the Justice Department about its failure to provide documents pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, and issued a bipartisan report on waste in New York’s Medicaid program.
In all, they have sent 11 joint letters in five weeks.
“I always like to look forward, and I have always said that our Committee is most effective and efficient when we combine forces to focus on issues we can agree on,” Cummings said in a statement. “I am hopeful that Chairman Issa and I will continue to work together as we have this Congress to find constructive solutions to real problems people face every single day.”
But the new approach carries risks for both congressmen, and the wounds from the past two years are still healing.
For Issa, the question is whether agreeing to a truce with a man essentially brought in to blunt his effectiveness as chairman is tantamount to surrender.
In 2010, top House Democrats pushed former Rep. Edolphus Towns from his perch as ranking member, fearing Issa would run roughshod over the soft-spoken lawmaker.
His replacement, Cummings, quickly made his mark as someone more than willing to call out what Democrats adamantly describe as Issa’s abuses of the oversight process.
“Oversight of the federal government will not be compromised just for the sake of comity on the committee. While Chairman Issa welcomes the Minority’s desire to participate as a partner in investigating the failings of government, he will have no more tolerance for efforts to obstruct oversight than he did last Congress,” Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said.
Meanwhile, if Cummings continues to sign on to the committee’s oversight efforts, his endorsement will add power to efforts that are bound to sting the Obama administration at some point.
Aides describe Cummings as focused on the role he can play on the committee and zealous of his independence. Cummings, they say, is willing to forsake political expediency.
There has already been some friction, and some wonder how long the truce can last. Weeks after the detente had begun, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., was quoted in The Hill newspaper saying Issa had in the last Congress taken “sadistic pleasure in humiliating the minority.”
There is also disagreement over how to handle whistle-blower testimony.
The true test will come when the committee turns to an issue with political potency. While Issa has been shying away from the kind of hot-button investigations that drive headlines, his committee has been working on other issues in the meantime.
He has been doing TV interviews about the battle over sequester spending cuts, and the Oversight panel produced one of the key pieces in the sequester replacement bills the House passed in the last Congress.
The cornerstone of his postal overhaul legislation — five-day-a-week mail delivery — was embraced by the U.S. Postal Service itself.
The House passed a bill from the Oversight Committee to stop a pay increase for federal employees on Feb. 15.
The committee’s legislative agenda going forward includes more work on information technology and data security at federal agencies, a postal bill, Freedom of Information Act overhauls and changes to the authorities of the Government Accountability Office.
“While it remains committed to and engaged in fact-based oversight, the Committee has also placed a significant emphasis on advancing legislation and other policy goals to start this new Congress,” Hill said.
On some of the obvious areas of oversight, other committees are taking the lead. For instance, Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California, the new chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been leading efforts to investigate the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
And Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is leading efforts to investigate the recent release of illegal immigrants, which the administration attributed to budget cuts from the sequester.
McCaul demanded information from Immigrations and Custom Enforcement about how many detainees were released and how they were released.