Politics by Subpoena: How Darrell Issa Abuses His Power, and Why

Remember when the Democrats won both houses on Congress in 2006, and everyone predicted that committee chairs like Henry Waxman would launch far-reaching investigations of the Bush Administration? It never happened, and not because of a lack of potential scandals to dig into. Democrats apparently didn't see much point in burying an already unpopular administration in subpoenas. Instead, they stayed relatively positive and won the presidency in 2008 by a healthy margin.

Conservatives do things differently. Given them a gavel and they'll act like special prosecutors -- using investigative powers that are formidable and which most Americans tend to forget that Congress even has. Congressional committee chairs spent much of the 1990s hectoring the Clinton White House with investigations, and now they're at it again, with Darrell Issa in the lead. Indeed, it's hard to think of any committee head since Joseph McCarthy who has engaged in a more egregious abuse of his investigative powers. Mind you, I'm not comparing Issa to McCarthy, who remains a uniquely disturbing figure in U.S. history. I'm simply pointing out that Issa is going too far in ways that underscores how Congressional powers can be used in a very destructive fashion if the wrong person is wielding the gavel. 
 
Calling Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times,” Issa has been engaged in nonstop investigations since taking power after the 2010 election, drilling into everything from the Fast and Furious operation to Benghazi to Solyndra to Freddie and Fannie to the alleged politicization of the IRS to the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov. He's talked of finding "Obama's Watergate," but that's never happened and his investigations come up empty handed again and again. 
 
Of course, though, finding real wrongdoing would simply be gravy for Issa. He and his investigators can accomplish plenty without ever stumbling on an actual crime. They can make headlines and create the perception of corruption; they can force executive branch officials to spend enormous amounts of time responding to subpoenas for testimony and documents, distracting them from their work; and they can terrorize administration allies outside of the government, including in the nonprofit sector, who also can be forced to give testimony and turn over documents. If they fish long enough, and ask enough questions, they may get lucky and catch somebody contradicting themselves or some document, leading to "falsehoods" and a "cover-up" to investigate. 
 
This is all familiar to anyone who lived through the 1990s, when congressional investigators used Whitewater, Travelgate, and other non-scandals to tie the Clinton administration in knots and force numerous top officials to spend a fortune on lawyers and endless time responding to congressional investigators. None of those investigations ever turned up anything, but they badly damaged Clinton and helped derail his push for healthcare reform during his first term. 
 
Scandal-mongering is politics by other means: If you can't win in the electoral and legislative arena, you try to accomplish your goals in a vandalistic, bullying fashion.
 
Nowhere is Issa's politicized abuse of power more evident that in his far-reaching attack on the Affordable Care Act and, worse, the people who are implementing it. Well before the debacle with Healthcare.gov, Issa's staff was issuing subpoenas left and right to those involved in Obamacare, alleging all forms of malfeasance. Now, in recent months, he has aggressively investigated the problems around Healthcare.gov hoping to catch somebody in a lie or other impropriety -- implying on at least one occasion that Kathleen Sebelius gave false testimony to Congress. For some staff members at HHS, dealing with Issa's investigation is a full-time job. 
 
All of this is the height of cynicism because Darrel Issa couldn't care less whether Healthcare.gov works or not. He opposed the Affordable Care Act and probably celebrated the initial website's failure. No, this is all about scoring political points. 
 
We hear so much about congressional dysfunction, especially in regard to the Senate. But history shows that Congress can do the most damage to democracy when it abuses its power of investigation. We saw that in the 1950s. We're seeing it today. 

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