Towns Walks on Thin Caucus Ice

Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:40pm

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) is facing heat from up and down the Democratic ladder after locking Republicans out of his committee room this week in an ongoing spat over a mortgage lending controversy.

Towns’ move set off alarms in House Democratic leadership, with top staffers voicing growing concern Wednesday that the Oversight chairman is losing control of his panel amid a showdown with ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). It was unclear Wednesday evening whether leaders would intervene, but aides made clear they were now monitoring the situation.

“It will be on the agenda going forward,— one senior Democratic aide said.

And while committee Democrats blasted what they called partisan cheap shots from their Republican counterparts, some also decried their own panel leadership for allowing the dispute to distract from other work.

“There seem to be a lot of theatrics, and I wish we would get beyond the theatrics and get some real work done for the American people,— said Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), an Oversight member.

Towns and Issa met for an hour Wednesday afternoon to try to smooth things over but broke without an apparent resolution. The pair was set to meet again Thursday.

“Mr. Issa wants to believe Chairman Towns is genuine in his expressed desire to work with us to uncover the scope and the nature of the Countrywide VIP program,— Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said. A Towns spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawmakers’ feud began when Issa started pursuing an investigation into failed lending giant Countrywide’s controversial mortgage program for public officials and other prominent figures.

Towns for weeks has resisted the California Republican’s attempts to subpoena reams of information related to the program, arguing that the dragnet could expose sensitive, personal information of innocent people and that the Justice Department is best equipped to look into the matter. Issa has countered that the scandal strikes at the heart of how government officials failed to prevent the mortgage lending meltdown — and he has suggested Towns is compromised by two Countrywide loans he reportedly received through the VIP program.

The latest flare-up came Tuesday evening when Issa’s staff informed him that Democrats had changed the locks on the door Republicans used to access the main committee chamber. Democratic staff told their GOP counterparts that they would have the only keys.

Democrats confirmed the locks were changed and said they did it to retaliate against Republicans, who recently shot a video of Democratic members exiting their committee room to make the case that they were trying to avoid a vote on the Countrywide subpoenas.

Top House Democratic staffers expressed dismay at the lockout, which they called an unneeded distraction as the party tries to move through a sweeping agenda. “We’ve just got to be better than this. This is the sort of thing that can undercut a lot of the progress we’ve made in trying to clean up the image of Congress,— one aide said. “Maybe [Towns] can’t deal with this anymore, and maybe somebody needs to step in and be an adult.—

On the broader issue of how to parry the GOP’s Countrywide offensive, Towns faces a problem with his own Members. Several are freshmen who campaigned on reform platforms or hail from Republican-leaning districts and are loath to vote against an anti-corruption probe. “At this moment in our history, there shouldn’t be any partisan bickering about ethics, transparency and reform,— said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a freshman panel member. “There can be no sacred cows.—

Quigley said he would vote with Republicans to issue the subpoenas but favors instead a much broader look at the subprime lending industry. If in the course of that probe lawmakers uncovered the names of fellow Members who participated in the Countrywide lending program, Quigley said their names should be forwarded to the ethics committee for investigation.

“We have to address it one way or another, because it will keep coming back, and I’m sure there are Frontliners who are concerned,— Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said.

But Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Issa is pushing a “fishing expedition,— and pointed to the fact that the Senate Ethics Committee already reviewed and cleared two Senators who received loans through the Countrywide VIP program — Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

“Perhaps the real motivation here is to manufacture a scandal and damage people’s names in an election cycle,— Connolly said.

For his part, Issa said he had no intention of backing off his pursuit to subpoena those involved in the program but said he was open to a compromise like the one proposed by Quigley.

“I thought it was a smart, straight-forward [proposal] because Mike objects to not subpoenaing all the records,— he said. “But I think he agrees with the chairman that it’s not our job to determine the ethics of Members. That’s never been our committee and shouldn’t be the committee’s jurisdiction.—

Issa said he approached Towns on the House floor on Tuesday night and asked him if he was responsible for changing the locks. “I asked him if it was actually on his orders, and he said ‘you’re right’ or ‘you’re darn right it’ or something like that,— Issa said. “You know, Ed is feeling his back to the wall. He’s taking it very personally.—

House Republican leaders have so far stopped short of intervening in the conflict, but applauded Issa for a job well done.

“Ranking Member Issa is doing his job, and doing it well,— Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “Meaningful oversight is a bipartisan responsibility, and if Democrats are keeping the American people from learning the truth about abuses, Issa is absolutely right to hold them accountable.—

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), another Oversight panel member, said Towns’ decision reminded him of the incident in 2003 when then-Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) called the Capitol Police to evict Democrats from a committee room.

“I’m frustrated. It is hard for me to understand what exactly people are scared of here,— Souder said.

“Chairman Towns is a very fair man,— Souder added. “I found him open and generally speaking has been terrific to work with, but is he controlling the committee? [That] is one of the questions here.—