Darrell Issa: Friend or foe?

Rep. Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is pursuing a solutions-oriented bipartisan approach to IT reform.

As Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) starts what will likely be his final term as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he has signaled significant changes in how he plans to wield his wide-ranging influence over executive branch operations.

In the past two years, he became a persistent and headline-grabbing critic of the Obama administration, but now he has begun to use his chairmanship to reach across the aisle and achieve broader objectives with the president’s team and in the politically divided Congress.

In unveiling a “discussion draft” of his proposal to streamline federal IT, Issa revealed a willingness to take on an issue that has a small political constituency but a significant impact on government expenditures and efficiency. The detailed initiative also shows his serious approach to a broader set of management issues, which runs counter to Democrats’ recent criticisms of him as a partisan hit man.

“Because of the antiquated ways the government defines its responsibilities and acquires IT, we are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year on failed programs,” Issa said when he posted the discussion draft. “Accomplishing major reform will not be easy, but streamlining our obsolete approach to federal IT is essential to providing a better value for the American taxpayer dollar.”

Richard Beutel, the committee’s senior counsel for acquisition policy, said the proposal could cut $20 billion from annual IT costs of $81 billion.

Issa still plans to pursue the often-contentious oversight part of his domain. But he and other House Republicans appear chastened by GOP setbacks in the November elections, after having sought to assert their investigative authority as a political bludgeon against President Barack Obama.

Given his committee’s purview, Issa’s desire to leave a legacy of legislative achievements will likely focus on government operations. His desire to get things done comes at an opportune time because leaders of both parties are seeking consensus to spur the economy and reduce the federal deficit.

Issa "has enough areas of common ground with the administration, which also has done some very good work in this area." -- former Rep. Tom Davis.

"He has enough areas of common ground with the administration, which also has done some very good work in this area,” Davis said.  “Now that the election is over, hopefully they will work together.”

Overcoming a history of partisan politics

Although the two men differ in significant ways — Davis is more conciliatory and carved out a niche as a Beltway insider — he and Issa share a notable expertise in IT.

Issa, who was first elected to Congress in 2000, represents upscale San Diego suburbs. His success as owner of Directed Electronics, which became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of automobile security systems, has made him one of the wealthiest members of Congress. Issa combined his business skills and accomplishments, which include more than two-dozen patents, with his long-standing interest in shaping government policy to become chairman in the 1990s of the Consumer Electronics Association, a high-tech lobbying organization that has worked on both sides of the political aisle.

Rep. Gerald Connolly

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va) will co-sponsor Issa's planned IT reform bill to be introduced in 2013.

Issa’s draft IT proposal has been circulated among interested constituencies for their comments and features a notable bipartisan spirit — an illustration that politics can make strange bedfellows. A key section on consolidating federal data centers was based on an earlier bill filed by Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) that had sought to codify an initiative launched in 2011 by the Office of Management and Budget.

“To the chairman’s credit, he invited me to help shape his bill,” said Connolly, who is ranking member of the oversight committee’s Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform Subcommittee. “It’s the first major attempt in a decade to improve acquisition and procurement of federal technology.” Connolly said he expects to be a chief co-sponsor of the final bill when Issa files it early next year.

That display of bipartisanship echoes Issa’s pledge to collaborate with the Obama administration after the Republicans took over as the majority party in the House in 2010, which positioned him for the chairmanship of the oversight committee. “We can show where there are problems in government and where changes can be made,” he said in an interview at the time. “Oversight should be done with a balance for the American people and not as a gotcha.”

But Issa’s relationship with the administration quickly turned adversarial because of his flair for publicity. His oversight investigations featured an inquiry into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ controversial Fast and Furious gun-running surveillance operation in Mexico. It resulted in a nearly party-line vote on the first-ever House contempt citation of an attorney general after Eric Holder refused to turn over sufficient documents related to the case.

Then, less than a month before the 2012 election, Issa launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Issa defended his committee’s work as examining the security failures in Benghazi. But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the oversight committee, said the “hearing devolved into a disorganized, partisan and absurd spectacle.”

Additional hostility ensued when Obama administration officials ignored Issa’s Oct. 24 deadline to inform the committee of their plans to notify federal contractors and employees of possible job losses if the planned sequester of federal spending takes effect on Jan. 2, 2013.

On the legislative front, the oversight committee had few successful initiatives as the 112th Congress moved into its lame-duck session. The House passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which was designed to increase transparency and online reporting of federal spending, by voice vote in April. But House Democrats criticized the proposal for transferring broad powers from OMB to a new agency, and the measure went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

More significantly, Issa’s bill to overhaul the debt-ridden U.S. Postal Service was criticized as a partisan effort and an attack on unions, in contrast to a Senate measure that passed with bipartisan support (and more limited cost savings). House action on the postal measure has been delayed for months, and most experts anticipate that no agreement will be reached before this session of Congress adjourns. Crafting a legislative legacy

By contrast, Issa’s push for bipartisanship on the IT bill reflects several unique factors related to the issue itself and the accompanying politics. In particular, the proposal’s focus on government efficiency does not ignite the partisan conflicts that have pervaded Capitol Hill lately, according to congressional aides and others familiar with discussions of the draft proposal.

“Everyone recognizes that government is in a downsizing era,” said a congressional aide who has worked closely on IT issues and who requested anonymity. “For agencies to achieve their budgets will require efficiency and changes through technology. The federal government has fallen behind the private sector for many reasons. A lot goes back to the acquisition process, which is massively outdated.” And many private-sector entities that benefit from the status quo will seek to protect their interests, the aide added.

Obama and his management experts have sought to take control of the problem and demand more rational pricing and acquisition capabilities. “But there are only a few people at OMB,” the aide said. “And the president’s initiative hasn’t taken effect because the bureaucracy slows things down.”

Issa’s business background has given him a special appreciation of those problems and the opportunities for large savings in IT budgets. Now he needs to find a way to move his proposal through the legislative obstacle course.

Its trademark feature could be its expanded authority for agency CIOs. “The CIOs are in the unenviable position where they have the responsibility to manage these issues but lack the power,” Beutel told a group of lawyers and lobbyists in October. Most agencies have failed to implement existing provisions that empower CIOs, he added. Beutel’s experience as a Senate aide with credentials on other bipartisan projects could be a key factor in building consensus on Issa’s measure.

“The administration needs less clumsy IT, and Issa’s proposal addresses that and more,” said Davis, who is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte. “The table is set for the two sides to work together. They have to find a rhythm.”

White House officials have been slow to comment on Issa’s proposal. “Some in the administration are stand-offish,” partly because of concerns over Issa’s past investigations, Davis said. That could complicate the challenge of passing legislation that deals directly with the executive branch. But in another sense, it spares Issa from having to work closely with his former adversaries while he puts his imprint on the issue.

It also creates opportunities for deal-makers who can bring the two sides together. Among those who seem ideally suited to the task are Connolly and Davis, who prior to his retirement in 2008 represented the same Northern Virginia district Connolly does now. It includes much of the booming Tysons Corner business complex. Both men are self-styled centrists who served in local politics and rose to the influential post of chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Issa's IT reform bill is "headed toward being a bill that other Democrats can support. But we are still in the early stages." -- Rep. Gerald Connolly.

Connolly, who noted that his district is the second largest center of technology employees in the country, said he hopes his support for Issa’s proposal will send a positive message to congressional allies and the Obama administration. “It’s headed toward being a bill that other Democrats can support,” Connolly said. “But we are still in the early stages, and the bill has not been widely circulated.” He has kept in close contact with Cummings, the oversight committee’s senior Democrat, who often consults him on government management issues.

Issa’s political future

Issa has taken an active role in pushing other bipartisan initiatives that seek to promote open government and restrict federal controls. Working with senior Democrats, he has been a longtime supporter of proposals to protect the rights of American creators and innovators. “Intellectual property creators should not have to fear the threat of government mandates becoming an additional hurdle to their success,” Issa said when he filed a related bill last year with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Issa also has vigorously opposed restrictions on Internet access. In a contentious battle last year over the Stop Online Piracy Act, he was a leading foe of the measure, which he said “lacked a fundamental understanding of how Internet technologies work.” The Internet and intellectual property bills are the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee, on which Issa also serves.

On the oversight committee, he has taken a more traditional Republican approach in voicing opposition to excessive federal regulation and spending. In September, the committee issued a report that cited billions of dollars of alleged Medicaid overpayments to the states. The findings could be useful for GOP deficit-reduction proposals. Plus, opportunities for oversight of administration activities are often dictated by unpredictable events.

Issa feels an imperative to achieve results because he will reach the Republicans’ six-year limitation on serving as a senior member of a House committee after the 2014 election. That could open an array of options for him in California. He narrowly lost a GOP primary for the Senate in 1998 and spearheaded the 2003 drive to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis but withdrew his candidacy to replace Davis when Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the contest at the last minute.

Issa has also had an interest in joining the House Republican leadership, though he has lost two contests for lower-level positions and could face a roadblock in the form of fellow California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who serves as House majority whip.

But as Issa has shown in his recent moves as oversight committee chairman, he has an impressive dexterity to reshape the playing field.

About the Author

Richard E. Cohen, an FCW contributing writer, has covered Capitol Hill for more than three decades and is the author of several books on Congress.


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