Who will Republican leadership crown the next Darrell Issa? With leadership rules forcing the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to step down after this year, it’s a favorite parlor game in certain corridors of Congress to guess at his successor. Politico on Thursday was auditioning House members for his job a second time, since a May feature on Jason Chaffetz, Jim Jordan, Trent Franks and Charles Boustany’s jockeying to prove they deserved the title of chief Obama antagonizer. Now they have named John Mica, Mike Turner, Patrick McHenry, and Doc Hastings to be in the mix, too.
And yet, with an astounding one-third of all House committees investigating some action of the Obama administration, the search for the next Issa is getting to be a little beside the point. Whether they are in leadership positions or not, the House already has Issas in spades.
And based on how eagerly the press corps responds to scandals and partisan point-scoring, it's likely to stay that way. Consider the field of mini-Issas hell-bent on getting their fifteen minutes, legislating be damned: There’s Fred Upton, whose Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for improper fundraising connected to Affordable Care Act implementation. Boustany, before he became the most aggressive investigator of the phony IRS scandal, went after the IRS for supposed improprieties in implementing Obamacare. Chaffetz was quicker out of the gate than anyone investigating State Department culpability for the Benghazi attacks, milking even officials’ rule-following refusal to speak to him for press. For his comments under oath about the seizure of Fox reporter James Rosen’s phone records, Attorney General Eric Holder found himself under investigation by House Judiciary chair Bob Goodlatte. Jordan is equally as responsible as Issa in keeping alive conservative umbrage about the IRS’s Tea Party “targeting.” Trey Gowdy chokes up during IRS hearings.
How Congress reached the point of being a veritable House of Issas is pretty clear. In captivating a press that thrives on rancorous partisan skirmishes, Issa has inspired a slew of self-appointed watchdogs who may not covet his job but certainly don’t mind the attention they get by aping him. Unfortunately for him, the crowded field of scandal-makers has considerably diminished Issa’s agenda-setting abilities; Chaffetz heeded conservative demands to roots out Benghazi impropriety amidst disappointment that Issa had not already taken up the call, and four more House committees have since followed Chaffetz’s lead. It has also had the effect of choking all the oxygen out of the issues where Issa has helped lead the pack. (So Issa is dogging the IRS? So is everyone else.)
When Issa was first in the catbird seat, one of his chief aims was to fashion himself a reasonable, get-it-done chairman—and to avoid investigations that fanned the flames of the looniest right-wing conspiracy theories. Two years later, whether you feel he has held fast to this promise is, yes, a matter of perspective; as Ryan Lizza put it when Issa told him, “you have to move from the right to the center,” it was hard to see how Issa could resist belligerent partisanship: “Republicans and Democrats now seem to deal with different sets of facts.” And sure enough, in late July, there was Issa trying to coax back to life the IRS-Tea Party “scandal,” long after reams of proof had emerged to show that what happened at the IRS is best described as a clerical snafu.
But his dimunition into one of a dozen Issas is also a fine parable for how mired the House has gotten in dramas of its own making—so much that it looks at though Issa’s legacy won’t be that he was the chief thorn in Obama’s side. It’s that he inspired a veritable briar patch of dilatory imitators.