Chaffetz Brings Bipartisanship Back to Oversight Panel

Chaffetz Brings Bipartisanship Back to Oversight Panel
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Jason Chaffetz first came to Congress in 2009 with a specific goal in mind: chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Just six years later, he’s taken over the helm of the powerful panel, and tried to do a bit of reform.

The committee was famously contentious during the chairmanship of Chaffetz’s predecessor, Darrell Issa, who often rankled Democrats on the panel and was a thorn in the side of the Obama administration, conducting what it viewed as overly partisan, less than substantive investigations. Among the high-profile matters it spotlighted were the IRS singling out conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal and the 2012 Benghazi attacks. Republicans argue that Issa did important work on the committee and led necessary, substantive investigations, though there is little disagreement that he was a fierce partisan warrior.

When Chaffetz campaigned to run the committee in the new Congress – Issa was forced to leave because of Republican term limits on chairmanships – the Utah lawmaker ran partially on a platform of taking the committee in a new, less fiery direction, promising improved relationships with Democrats. And in the first six months, the reviews of Chaffetz’s nascent tenure are positive across the board, and across the aisle.

“I was very focused since day one on trying to become the chairman of the oversight committee,” Chaffetz told RealClearPolitics during an interview outside the House chamber. “You can investigate literally anything at any time. There’s no bounds or jurisdictions. So that’s the committee for me. I love the breadth of what you can get your fingernails dirty with.”

Renewed Relationships

When he took over the panel in January, Chaffetz made a number of big changes, including replacing a significant portion of the Republican committee staff, shuffling around the subcommittees and inviting several new members onto the panel. Beyond those changes, he also built upon an effort that had been in the works for many months to improve relations with Democrats, specifically with ranking member Elijah Cummings, whose relationship with Issa was famously fractured – Issa once cut off Cummings’ microphone and got up to leave while the Maryland congressman was speaking during a hearing. 

The effort started last year, when Chaffetz made a trip to Cummings’ Baltimore district and invited his colleague to his district in Utah. Since then, the two have formed a strong bond, albeit one that still sees plenty of disagreement on the issues.

“I’ve got a wonderful relationship with him,” Chaffetz said. “We certainly do not agree on all issues, but we understand each other and respect each other, so there are initiatives he wants to pursue and we’re doing those. We don’t always agree on things, but we get along.”

Cummings agreed, saying in a statement that he appreciated Chaffetz’s efforts and hoped the renewed bipartisanship on the committee would continue:

“I appreciate Chairman Chaffetz’s leadership and, in particular, his sincere and personal interest in working with the Democrats to conduct oversight and address the core issues that affect our constituents. He has honored my requests for hearings on several issues and, despite any disagreements we may have, the committee for the most part has conducted itself in a bipartisan manner.”

The improvement hasn’t just been with Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee since 2011. Other Democrats on the panel agreed that Chaffetz has been, as Rep. Stephen Lynch put it, “a breath of fresh air.”

Lynch, the ranking Democrat on the national security subcommittee, said Chaffetz has led a number of CODELs (taxpayer-funded congressional trips) to foreign countries to inspect security at foreign embassies, and said it’s a positive sign that Chaffetz reached out to him for those trips. Overall, he said he’d give him a B+ for the work he’s done and an “A for effort” and said Democrats would likely unanimously label his leadership an improvement.

Chaffetz “actually pulled in support from Democrats when possible, where Mr. Issa intentionally drove Democratic support away,” Lynch said. “[Issa] just had a totally different approach; he was a very polarizing figure when he was the chairman. He did some embarrassing things when he was the chairman. There’s no comparison really in terms of how these two gentlemen have handled their jobs.”

One simple example of the improved relations came from Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. The Virginia lawmaker said he’s been an advocate for postal reform for many years, but was never invited by Issa to join the conversation about the topic. Chaffetz, on the other hand, reached out to Connolly for his input. Though that may seem like a small gesture, Connolly said it shouldn’t be overlooked.

“In the House of Representatives, that’s not a trivial thing,” he said. “…Debates come and go, issues come and go, but the slights and the degradation, the humiliation, those last forever, if you engage in them.”

Issa, for his part, defended his tenure running the committee. In an interview outside the House chamber, he talked about the importance of the many areas he investigated and shrugged off the negative reviews Democrats have given him.

“I think they should be delighted that somebody that was holding their president accountable while they continued to say there was no ‘there’ there” is no longer chairman, Issa said when asked if the opposition party’s criticisms were unfair.

As for Chaffetz’s tenure, Issa said the committee has been “quieter” since he left it, though he declined to assess whether that was a good or bad thing. He said he is pleased Chaffetz has continued doing oversight of the Secret Service, but that “the legislative accomplishments of the committee have yet to be seen and any significant new investigations have yet to be seen.”

Chaffetz said the decision to take the committee in a different direction stemmed from advice John Boehner offered when he first came to Congress after the 2008 elections. The House speaker told him, “You can disagree, but don’t be disagreeable,” according to the Utah Republican, and Chaffetz took the message to heart.  

“Darrell Issa had many successes. I’d like to think that we’ve built upon those successes, but tweaked some things to make them even more bipartisan where possible,” Chaffetz said. “We’re still going to get in some food fights, but I don’t want to ever let it get personal.”

Though Democrats have been positive about the chairman’s tenure so far, Connolly warned that it is fairly early to make judgments. He said Chaffetz still clearly comes at issues with the ideological bent of a conservative Republican, and that just because things are more collegial doesn’t mean they agree any more than they used to. The question is, Connolly said, will the efforts to be more open continue over the long haul?

Subcommittee Speed Bump

One of the biggest personnel problems in Chaffetz’s early months came, ironically, on the Republican side. After a tense vote on a rule for trade legislation that saw more than 30 Republicans buck party leadership, Chaffetz removed Rep. Mark Meadows, one of the dissenters, from his chairmanship on the government operations subcommittee. Though Chaffetz said there were a multitude of reasons for the change, it was largely seen as punishment for voting against the rule, and conservatives on the committee threw up their arms in protest.

In response, Chaffetz convened a meeting with Republicans on the committee, which he and others called a “family discussion.” It lasted nearly two hours, Chaffetz said, and ultimately he decided to reinstate Meadows.

The situation made for several tense days for Chaffetz, Republican leadership and the House Freedom Caucus (a group of conservative GOP lawmakers Meadows helped found), but most on the committee said it would be viewed eventually as just a blip on the radar.  Jim Jordan, the chair of the Freedom Caucus and an oversight subcommittee chairman, said he thinks Chaffetz is doing a “great job” running the panel and, once he made the decision to reinstate Meadows, it has been business as usual on the committee. Meadows echoed that sentiment.

“There’s no problem within the committee. We’ve had great family discussions, so I don’t see a problem within the committee at all,” Meadows told RCP. “I don’t see it as a negative or any kind of a blight on his record as chairman at all.”

Chaffetz said the message from members of his panel, many of whom are also part of the Freedom Caucus, was that his punishment of Meadows was too harsh. After discussing the issue with them, Chaffetz conceded they might have a point.  

“Lesson learned on my part and hopefully a little bit on his part and I think, collectively, we’re a better, more cohesive committee afterwards,” he said. “We got there the hard way, but nevertheless that’s where we are today.”

Direction of the Committee

As noted, Chaffetz eyed the chairmanship of the oversight committee immediately upon entering Congress, mostly for its broad jurisdiction and expansive power. Asked about the number of issues available to him, he described himself as a “kid in a candy store.”

Thus far in his tenure, the panel’s investigations have focused on a broad range of topics. He’s held hearings concerning the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management where hackers stole more than 20 million Social Security numbers, and aggressively called for the OPM director to resign. (Katherine Archuleta did so on Friday.) He’s also held hearings on diplomatic security at U.S. embassies and consulates, an issue brought to light by the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. His committee held a hearing Thursday on cost overruns and construction delays at the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The members have also delved into postal reform and convened a hearing about agency problems in conducting Freedom of Information Act requests. This week, the full committee will hear testimony on back-to-back days regarding criminal justice reform. That topic came about when Cummings presented him with a list of priorities, Chaffetz said, and they discovered it might be a matter of mutual interest, although Chaffetz admitted his proposals, which focus on reducing recidivism, might not go as far as Cummings would prefer.

While those are just some of the areas the committee has delved into so far, Chaffetz has a list of other topics he’d like to dig into, including investigating the IRS, which he called “absolutely, by far the number one issue,” and continued oversight of the OPM breach, which he labeled “far broader and more impactful than anyone realizes.” He noted that the committee just released its first criminal referral to the Justice Department earlier that day – a referral of the former chair of the Chemical Safety Board – and subpoenaed documents relating to the Keystone pipeline from the State Department.

Chaffetz was visibly excited listing the different directions in which he could steer the committee’s work.

“We can investigate anything at any time. It just puts a smile on my face,” he said with, indeed, a large grin on his face. “Maybe I’m odd and weird, but I love that. I wake up thinking, ‘All right, there’s nothing we can’t get after.’”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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