10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Six months into his tenure as Congress’ chief investigator, Inland Rep. Darrell Issa has overseen 81 hearings, issued nearly 20 subpoenas and released five lengthy reports criticizing Obama administration policies and actions.

But whether the sheer volume of Issa’s activity has translated to achievement is up for debate — and, unsurprisingly, opinions differ along partisan lines.

The hard-charging Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has fixed his sights on a wide array of issues. They range from his plan to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service to his investigations into burdensome federal regulations, government transparency lapses and, most recently, the controversial anti-gun trafficking operation linked to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Bloomberg News

Some of Issa’s probes have been followed by White House policy changes, giving his supporters fodder for their argument that he has achieved a measure of success in holding government accountable. But critics say the ambitious and telegenic lawmaker is more interested in grandstanding and doing his party’s bidding than he is committed to fixing what’s wrong with Washington.

His image was not helped by headlines that followed the revelation that his former press secretary had been leaking e-mails from journalists to a New York Times reporter.

Many of the hearings have been marked by heated exchanges, most notably between Issa and the panel’s top Democrat, Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, who has relentlessly criticized Issa for the way he has used — and not used — the coveted subpoena power that comes with his gavel.

During a meeting late last month to take stock of the panel’s accomplishments in the first quarter of the 112th Congress, Issa, who represents much of southwestern Riverside County, acknowledged that the committee has been less effective than he had hoped.

“I’m a brand new chairman. This is a brand new majority. We didn’t do as well as we could have,” he said, turning his attention to a handful Democrats in the room. “We want to do better. Help us do better. But also realize that it’s our turn to lead and we have to do the best we can.”

Results seen

On the issue of federal regulations alone, Issa’s committee has held 18 hearings and issued a 97-page report detailing dozens of rules seen as being burdensome on employers and, thus, counterproductive to job-creation efforts.

The committee’s heavy focus on regulations has made a difference, said freshman Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., who serves on the panel.

“I am very happy with what we’ve done in the first six months,” Kelly said. “If nothing else, we have shed a spotlight on how difficult government makes it for us in the private sector to possibly succeed.”

The White House last month unveiled plans to expand the board created to track spending under the 2009 Recovery Act, so that it would monitor all federal spending. The effort followed the Oversight Committee’s consideration of similar legislation meant to promote government transparency.

Vice President Joe Biden, who was tapped to oversee the effort, mentioned Issa among a group of lawmakers who he said helped shape the initiative.

Last month, Issa introduced legislation that would overhaul the U.S. Postal Service, which lost $8.5 billion last year and is projected to lose similar amounts of taxpayer money this year and next. The bill aims to make the service solvent through a complete restructuring.

Fast and Furious

Issa’s most recent investigation delved into Operation Fast and Furious, a program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that he described as reckless. The operation sought to build a complex case against gun traffickers linked to Mexican drug cartels. But to do so, agents allegedly allowed straw buyers — people who are legally allowed to buy weapons — to then illegally sell them to criminals, who passed the guns to drug cartels.

Two of those guns — a pair of AK-47s — were found at the site of the December killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona, leading Issa to launch a probe into who knew about it and authorized the program.

As the investigation unfolded, a supervisor who oversaw the operation was transferred out of the Arizona office, Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said. There also have been calls for the resignation of the bureau’s acting director, Kenneth Melson, and Issa wants to know whether high-ranking officials at the Justice Department, which oversees the bureau, were aware of the operation.

Asked about the case last week, President Barack Obama assured reporters that Attorney General Eric Holder did not authorize agents to allow gun-running into Mexico and said appropriate action would be taken once all of the facts have come out.

Hill said the termination or reassignment of government officials is not the goal of Issa’s probe.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want anybody to be the fall guy on this,” he said. “We want to know who was in charge, who authorized this, who knew about this and we want to make sure we hold the right people accountable.”

Partisan tension

Throughout the past six months, Cummings and other Democrats have frequently objected to Issa’s unilateral command of the panel’s subpoena power, arguing that the minority side of the committee should be allowed to weigh in on when to compel testimony or documents. Issa often responds by reminding Democrats that they gave Republicans little say in such matters when they held the majority.

Before assuming the chairmanship, many Democrats warned that Issa would run wild with his subpoena power. Issa’s staff declined to disclose all of the subpoenas they have issued, saying they didn’t want to jeopardize ongoing cases involving whistleblowers. But Hill said there have been fewer than 20, and many were sent to people who wanted to give information to the committee but needed legal protection to do so.

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