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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.