Once Again, Darrell Issa Is Blowing It

Darrell Issa is at it again, shooting high and repeatedly missing in his investigation of Obamacare’s woes.

House Oversight And Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa questions members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during a hearing December 14, 2011 in Washington, DC. In October the four commissioners sent a letter White House Chief of Staff William Daley expressing "grave concerns" that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko's deficiencies as a leader could compromise nuclear safety.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Nov. 21, 2013, 8:38 a.m.

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.

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