Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By William Douglas
Published: Saturday, Apr. 12, 2014 – 12:00 am

WASHINGTON — From the plush chairman’s seat on the dais in the cavernous hearing room of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa peered down at Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen and offered a rhetorical pat on the shoulder, followed shortly by a swift verbal kick in the pants.

“You were brought in to do a very hard job, and no doubt you ask yourself every day, ‘Why did I ever ask for and accept one of the hardest jobs anyone could ever have in Washington?’ ” Issa said at the opening of a hearing earlier this month on the IRS’ scrutiny of mostly conservative tax-exempt groups. “Unfortunately, you’ve been more concerned with managing the political fallout than cooperating with Congress or at least this committee.”

Issa’s probes into the IRS scandal; the deadly attack in 2012 on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya; the flawed “Operation Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program; and other Obama administration controversies have thrust the San Diego-area House member into the spotlight.

His stature has grown among Republicans and tea party members who say he’s relentlessly exposing what they feel are the corrupt, inept, and stonewalling ways of President Barack Obama and his Chicago cronies.

The seven-term congressman, who flirted with running against Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004, spent $1.7 million of his own money – an auto alarm business has made him a multimillionaire – on a successful signature-gathering drive to petition for the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis.

Now Issa has become a “national figure” because of his high-profile investigations, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

“He’s probably been the most prominent Republican trying to understand the various ways this administration breaks the law,” Gingrich said. “By force of intellect, personality and administrative skill, he will be one of the top 10 to 15 House Republicans the rest of his career. That’s who he is now.”

Democrats and other foes see a different Issa: a craven, overzealous chairman with a penchant for selectively leaking partial documents to make witnesses look bad and a willingness to go over the line in pursuit of bringing down the Obama administration.

“Issa’s propensity to overreach and sometimes exaggerate shifts the focus from the investigation to Issa,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar on politics and Congress at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. “The fact that he hasn’t gotten the goods at any point reflects poorly on the committee and its chairman.”

He may not have the goods, but he’s gotten the Obama administration’s attention. At a hearing last year, Attorney General Eric Holder tersely called Issa’s conduct “unacceptable” and “shameful.”

Spurred by Issa’s committee, the Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress in 2012 in connection with the Fast and Furious probe.

“There’s no question he’s made the administration sweat,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor. “They’ve got to expend resources to deal with these investigations. It would be interesting to see the person-hours the White House or Justice Department spends in trying to put out these fires.”

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