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Oversight and Ambition: Issa's Rising Profile

By Adam O'Neal - November 7, 2013

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Moving On

With his goal of winning statewide office in increasingly blue California appearing unrealistic, Issa shifted his focus back to the House. He kept a relatively low profile for his first few years there, but the congressman, whose ancestry includes Lebanese paternal grandparents, took an interest in U.S. Middle East peace initiatives. He defied the Bush administration and met with Bashar al-Assad in 2007 -- a time when the Syrian president was considered a moderate secular leader in the troubled region.

In 2006, he ran for the Republican Policy Committee chairmanship but lost to Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. He became the ranking member of the Oversight Committee in 2009 and was made chairman after the GOP retook control of the House in 2010.

In that role, Issa has launched a series of high-profile inquiries, becoming a thorn in the side of the Obama administration and endearing himself in the process to many Republicans.

Jon Fleischman, a veteran party activist in California, told RCP that Issa “enjoys rock star status” with state Republicans primarily because of his oversight role.

“It’s not like California Republicans have a lot of home state heroes to admire,” Fleischman said. “When he comes to a GOP convention, you can’t keep the crowds away from him.”

Those admirers have a growing list of reasons to praise Issa. His committee’s investigation into the Justice Department’s gun-walking program known as “Fast and Furious” led to Attorney General Eric Holder becoming the first cabinet member held in contempt of Congress. Hearings on lavish General Services Administration spending at conferences made headlines. Oversight has continually probed the Benghazi tragedy, which will provide a trove of opposition research should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016. Earlier this year, the House panel took on the IRS targeting scandals.

The committee is now looking into the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, which has proved politically disastrous for the Obama administration. Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. said the troubles with Obamacare present a unique opportunity for Issa: “On the one hand, no one can accuse him of pursuing a side issue. This is essential public policy. This is simply about the implementation of policy, and that’s exactly what the Oversight Committee is supposed to do.”

There are risks, however. As Jeffe cautioned, “If a member decides to make it into a political circus, how does [Issa] prevent that?”

Where To Next?

This watchdog role, and the frequent media appearances that come with it, have significantly raised Issa’s visibility and stature. But the role has its limits, and so the question becomes: What can the man who in 2000 acknowledged that he viewed his House seat as a “steppingstone” do next?

Fleischman believed Issa could easily win the Republican nomination for a statewide office in California, but the broader issue “is whether or not a Republican can win statewide in a blue state.”

Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, told The New Yorker that his boss gave up his California dream the day after Republican Meg Whitman lost the 2010 gubernatorial race. Jerry Brown crushed Whitman -- who spent $140 million of her own money -- by 13 points.

Instead, Issa has looked to the House, donating to the campaigns of dozens of fellow Republicans in the last election. And despite a few missteps -- some party colleagues have criticized him for overplaying his hand during some investigations -- House GOP members are happy with Issa’s tenure at oversight. But with Kevin McCarthy, another California Republican, ensconced as majority whip, his path to a higher leadership position remains unclear.

Fleischman, ever the steadfast Issa supporter, predicted that Speaker John Boehner and the party Steering Committee “will be under tremendous pressure nationally from Republicans to find a high profile role for Issa” once his committee chairmanship ends.

But Professor Pitney cautioned that the congressman’s oversight role hasn’t necessarily groomed him for a leadership position: “Oversight gives him the opportunity to gain the spotlight, but it doesn’t really enable him to work on legislation. And that’s what members expect the leaders to do -- get legislation passed.”

But Issa still has at least another year as chairman, and how he spends it will be crucial.

“He has an instinct for the jugular,” Pitney said. “He’s tough, and we’re going to see that in the weeks ahead,” predicted Pitney. 

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Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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