You might be shocked to hear just how much of the news cycle is caused by one place and one man. U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, stands at the center of your weekly barrage of stories concerning everything from the nefarious stipulations of the Affordable Care Act to the Nixonian schemes behind the Benghazi cover-up. In the “message” war being fought in the media between left and right, the true leader of the GOP — and Obama’s biggest headache — is Rep. Issa.
When the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party, the House Oversight Committee hardly makes the news. The committee that Issa chairs is nominally tasked with rooting out government abuses and inefficiencies but is essentially used as a partisan mouthpiece for whoever controls the House of Representatives, a state of affairs that Rep. Issa, while contributing to, hardly invented. Under the chairmanship of Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), 1,052 subpoenas were issued against the Clinton administration and Democratic operatives between 1997 and 2002, while only three subpoenas were issued against the Bush administration during its two terms. When Democrats took back the house in 2006, incoming chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) stated that his top priority would be investigating Halliburton and the war in Iraq. Since the GOP took over the House in 2010, Rep. Issa has worked hard to keep his promise of holding “seven hearings a week times 40 weeks,” hungry for a scandal with the power to bring down the Obama administration.
Sometimes, this gives us good TV. We had Secretary Clinton’s fiery tirade against the Benghazi investigation, and, more recently, Attorney General Eric Holder’s habit of lecturing and belittling the committee’s antics to Issa’s face. Issa has fought back by holding Eric Holder in contempt of Congress last year, the first time that has happened to an attorney general in U.S. history. He has subpoenaed ambassadors, cabinet-level officials, mid-level bureaucrats, and everyone else short of the president to appear before his committee for a public scolding. The president responds to these attacks largely by ignoring them, leaving it to the vast array of Democratic surrogates to win the message war against Issa, some with more pluck than others. Every week, voters can tune in and watch either Issa’s inquisition or the Obama administration’s indignation.
Other than some entertainment and high blood pressure, though, what do voters have to show for this? A few bureaucrats have been fired, and there is the occasional partisan “report.” The committee has also done more than its fair share in contributing to the infamous “gridlock” in Washington that everyone loves to talk about, serving as the reference point for obligatory comments about D.C.’s “partisan tone.” Despite these contributions, conventional wisdom holds that Rep. Issa and his committee are merely partisan politicians masquerading as government overseers. Rep. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, shocked no one when he mildly suggested that Issa’s true motives were political in nature.
Thankfully, Rep. Issa’s true motives don’t matter. Our system of government and the “checks and balances” we all read about in middle school do not stipulate or require that politicians have kindness in their hearts in order for the government to work. The House Oversight Committee might be pure partisanship, but it is also at least one more thing: the natural home of that extremely American political belief that the government is up to no good. As Americans, paranoia about government is in our political DNA. Even liberals, touted as believing government is the solution to everything, have a strong libertarian streak when it comes to social issues and due process. Partisanship may sound ugly and make you want to turn off the TV, but we should take any motivation people have to hold government accountable.
Of course, this won’t be popular with everyone. So long as we live in a politically diverse country, the House Oversight Committee and whoever runs it will be hated by about half of the country. Its targets will criticize it for being too partisan, too aggressive, too disrespectful in carrying out its mandate, but if the House Oversight Committee is any indication, when we take away partisanship as a motivation for keeping government in check, not that much checking will go on. Philosophically, we can theorize a tone or balance that would cut out the partisanship while still allowing the committee to do its job, but, in practice, partisanship is an indispensable component of limited government. Let’s take it in stride.