In spring 1998, with the Monica Lewinsky melodrama pushing the Clinton White House into the spotlight, the GOP's chief scandalmonger became the center of his own scorcher after getting caught leaking a deceptively edited transcript of a former administration supporter. Government Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton's credibility was shot, and Speaker Newt Gingrich was furious, calling the investigating panel a "circus." Burton was dragged before the House GOP Conference and made to apologize, even after firing one of his closest aides.
Today, the man who holds Oversight's gavel seems hell-bent on repeating Burton's mistakes. This time, the administration's embarrassment is HealthCare.gov and the man is Rep. Darrell Issa, who seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and destroy what little credibility he has left after overpromising and under-delivering on "scandal" after "scandal."
HealthCare.gov has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Obama administration owns that failure. Politics 101 dictates that if your opponent is destroying himself, you step aside and let him. But defying both good government and smart politics, Issa and his compatriots have fallen back on a familiar troika: unsupported accusations, partisan overreach, and outright distortion.
Since the health care exchanges launched last month, there have been nearly 10 hearings, four subpoenas, dozens of demands for information, and zero smoking guns. This week, Republicans are touting documents they say show that Henry Chao, the website's chief project manager at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, knew in July that the website could "crash ... at takeoff."
But a CMS spokeswoman tells National Journal that Chao's email pertained to just "one small piece" of HealthCare.gov and not the website as a whole. "The federal marketplace is comprised of distinct pieces of functionality that, together, make up the full integrated system," the spokeswoman said.
And last week, Republicans said the website was insecure and could lead to identity theft. "What we know is that the people who knew or should have known, in fact, just simply ignored it," Issa told Fox News. That claim was based on a private interview in which Issa's staff sandbagged Chao with a document he had never seen before and led him to believe it was about parts of the website that would launch on Oct. 1. In fact, the memo relating to security risks pertained to two distinct portions of the site that won't go online until 2014.
Then there's the "anonymous shopper" provision. For more than a month, Issa claimed that the White House ordered a contractor to disable the function so as to "bur[y] the information about the high cost of Obamacare." But that claim also fell apart under questioning. Chao testified at a Nov. 13 hearing that the White House had nothing to do with the decision and that CMS made the call based on technical challenges with the contractor.
"It was indeed a kangaroo court, and Issa was the main marsupial," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote of the hearing. "Sorry, Mr. Chairman, but the pouch fits."
The conduct of Republican lawyers for the Oversight Committee in the private interview with Chao underscores just how blatantly biased and substantively shallow Issa's investigation is. During the session, Chao was confused by the document about security risks and repeatedly asked for time to study it. "I'm not even copied on this, so I don't, I don't have any basis for answering your questions," he protested. At one point, his lawyer interjected, "He is just saying he is uncomfortable speculating about the underlying rationale for a document he hasn't seen." Finally, Chao said, "You are putting words in my mouth," to which his questioner responded: "That's what I do. I'm a lawyer. It's a joke."
It's familiar territory for Issa, who tends to shoot first and ask questions later. From Benghazi to the IRS to Fast and Furious, almost every investigation he has helmed has blown up in his face.
Democrats can't help but marvel and feel compelled to offer some advice. "Not that I want to be calling attention to it, but he totally wasted a huge opportunity and got nothing," a Democratic staffer familiar with the oversight process, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said of Issa's hearing last week. For one, the staffer noted, Issa failed to mention anything about a report that HealthCare.gov might not be ready by the administration's Nov. 30 deadline. "From our perspective, they had so much that they could have asked, but nothing new was discovered."
Perhaps Republicans are finally seeing that. A letter from Issa obtained by National Journal shows that he backed down on a request to have two top Obama aides, Nancy-Ann DeParle and Jeanne Lambrew, testify before his committee. "As an extraordinary accommodation to the Administration," Issa wrote last Friday, "the committee will delay its proceedings until after November 30, 2013."
Considering that Issa has rarely hesitated to subpoena officials in the past — even ones who were not responsible for the problems he is investigating — perhaps the chairman is being told to rein it in by those above him.
Burton's multiyear investigation into potential Democratic campaign finance abuses burned through millions of dollars and hundreds of subpoenas, and when it failed to deliver major dirt, The New York Times editorialized that it was a "travesty" and a "parody of a reputable investigation."
Issa has never dwelled on any single endeavor long enough to quite reach parody status. Even now, he's moved on to his next eyebrow-raising accusation, taking to Sean Hannity's show Tuesday night to allege, based on a New York Post report, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics may have cooked the books on its jobs report ahead of President Obama's reelection.
Conspiracy theory or investigation? Hard to tell the difference.