Republican seeks more power for watchdogs

Issa says agencies must ‘go on a diet’

Republican Darrell Issa watched the election results on Nov. 2 from a hotel in San Diego. Among his targets for trimming are Medicare, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Postal Service. Republican Darrell Issa watched the election results on Nov. 2 from a hotel in San Diego. Among his targets for trimming are Medicare, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Postal Service. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)
By David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times / November 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Republican who will lead the chief investigative committee in the House is planning to vastly expand scrutiny of the Obama administration by seeking new subpoena powers for dozens of federal agency watchdogs in hopes of using their investigations and his own in an aggressive push to cut spending and shrink the government.

The Republican, Representative Darrell Issa of California, who will take over as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said the government needs “to go on a diet’’ to help erase the annual budget deficit of $1.4 trillion. His goal as chairman, he said in a recent speech, is to “focus on places where money can be saved, where we can literally close agencies or subagencies or programs.’’

It is a far broader policy mandate than was embraced by predecessors in both parties, who viewed their role as chief congressional inquisitor of the executive administration.

“What my committee has to do is, it has to stretch what it has done in the past,’’ Issa said.

His agenda may surprise some congressional Democrats and White House officials who are bracing for Issa to paper Washington with investigative subpoenas in a broader crusade to bring down President Obama.

But it is in sync with the Republican leadership’s desire to be seen as concentrating on problems of concern to voters rather than partisan combat. The soon-to-be House speaker, John A. Boehner, has told top Republicans on every committee that their efforts, including oversight of government operations, should focus on the economy and jobs and especially on ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse with an eye toward cutting spending.

Issa has already drawn up a list of big targets: $40 billion a year in fraud or waste in Medicare; tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to the government-controlled mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; $8.5 billion in losses by the Postal Service in the last fiscal year; tens of millions of dollars spent on redundant programs within federal agencies or squandered through corrupt contracting procedures.

Boehner and Issa are also counting on other congressional committees to step up their oversight efforts. The Ways and Means Committee, for instance, along with the Energy and Commerce Committee, will pick apart aspects of the new health care law. The Financial Services Committee will scrutinize the administration’s efforts to tighten regulation of Wall Street.

For Issa’s committee, which can delve into any corner of the government, the more policy-driven crusade is devised to steer clear of the reputation for hectoring and henpecking that congressional Republicans earned during the Clinton administration when they issued more than 1,000 subpoenas and repeatedly tied White House lawyers into knots, ultimately impeaching the president.

To that end, Issa has sought to play down the unfettered power to compel testimony and force the production of documents through subpoenas that he will gain with his new post in January. Instead, he has put greater emphasis in recent weeks on pursuing legislation to grant subpoena power to the inspectors general in dozens of federal agencies, internal watchdogs who he believes are better-positioned to hunt for waste. The current oversight committee chairman, Representative Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat, and Issa jointly supported a bill authorizing subpoena powers for inspectors general, but Democratic leaders did not make it a priority.

The focus on spending may create less tension than more politically focused inquiries, like investigating what inducements White House officials might have offered Democratic primary challengers to step aside in favor of the Democratic Party’s preferred candidates. But there is still likely to be a blizzard of investigations compared with the last two years, during which Issa repeatedly accused congressional Democrats of giving the Obama administration a free pass.

Issa has declined interview requests in recent weeks. Aides said he was waiting for his formal appointment as chairman, which is expected this week.