Thursday, November 06, 2008

Let the Fights Begin: Card Looks Nasty for House Oversight Committee Ring in 2009

By the end of the presidential race, it was commonplace to hear the media bemoaning the nasty, brutish tone of the campaign. Headlines right up to election day highlighted the continued attacks and counterattacks by the campaigns.

The Obama-McCain discourse is going to look like civil banter in comparison to what may happen in the House Government Reform & Oversight Committee starting in January.

The committee is the fiefdom of California Democrat Henry Waxman. He has used it during the past two years to keep up a steady barrage of three or four hearings a week on the Bush Administration, investigating aggressively into issues from the conduct of the Iraq War to the financial bailout and looking closely at the efficiency of Part D in the health care area.

Some Washington watchers, itching for a big internecine fight to get the Democratic Congress started, hope that Waxman will take on his nemesis on the Energy & Commerce Committee and challenge long-time sitting chairman John Dingell (MI) for the leadership of that committee. That fight would come near the end of November. Waxman won’t challenge Dingell unless he is sure he has the votes.

If he stays at Oversight, however, things should get interesting and nasty. Waxman will lose the wide range of easy GOP bureaucratic targets with the change to the Obama Administration. But that turns him lose to hold tougher hearings on private sector witnesses from companies that he believes are getting overpaid by the government or taking advantage of government programs. He won’t beat up on the leadership of the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services, for example. The new targets will be the execs of the companies running Part D plans or selling drugs to the plans.

But that is not where the biggest fireworks are likely to break out – between the chairman and a stream of beleagured corporate execs. The hostilities are likely to be most pronounced between Waxman and the ranking minority member.

The current ranking minority member of the committee Tom Davis (R-VA.) did not run for re-election. One of the next likely Republicans for the position by seniority, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, was defeated on Nov. 4 in the Democratic sweep of New England. Both of them have been civil adversaries to Waxman.

The first announced candidate on the Republican side to succeed Davis is Darrell Issa of California (San Diego and Riverside). The Issa-Waxman relationship is much more strained. Waxman and Issa are oil and water at best. A better analogy is probably chemicals that combust when they get near each other. The National Journal reports that Waxman threatened to have Issa forcibly removed from a hearing.

Issa announced his interest in the ranking member position in a November 5 statement. “This committee will need a strong voice,” Issa declared, “when hearings and investigations are one-sided, inappropriately partisan, or oblivious to government failures like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that embarrass the majority.”

Issa was one of the driving forces behind the recall vote against California Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003. Issa put $2 million behind the effort. He is a tough, sarcastic and acerbic partisan.

He displays a relish and willingness to take on Waxman. For example, during the June 2007 hearing on Avandia safety he attacked the proceeding as a review of the drug by unqualified people. Throwing Waxman’s words back at the chairman, Issa said: “As the Chairman said, rightfully, and I appreciate his saying it, none of us here is qualified to evaluate this drug.” He accused the hearing of treading “closely toward the hypocrisy that I believe this hearing begins to look like.”

As ranking member, Issa would take on Waxman at every turn. It could quickly develop into one of the roughest shows during the next Congress, with all the subtlety and productivity of professional wrestling.

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