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The Real Stories Behind the Headlines from the Congressman Who Exposed Washington's Biggest Scandals
By Darrell Issa
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In Watchdog, Congressman Darrell Issa reveals some of the worst of Washington, pulls back the curtain on business as usual in the Capitol, and lets in the sunshine of accountability.
As Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Issa led a years-long fight to uncover what was really happening in the Obama Administration and Hillary Clinton’s State Department, while taking on a mainstream media and establishment Beltway culture he quickly found out weren’t always interested in the truth.
But what the public doesn’t know about Big Government and what the people may not realize is happening to their country requires someone in Washington willing to tell the truth no matter who gets the blame.
Carrying out aggressive oversight brought Issa into conflict with not only political foes, but friends and allies as well. Through it all, he has sought to remind everyone in government they are still subject to the rule of law and accountable to the American people. Watchdog is the inside account of what it took to get the truth and what it will take for our democracy to endure.
Table of Contents
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How We Got Here
Something has gone terribly wrong in our national conception of governmental power, public accountability, and the American people's right to access what the government knows and have the strongest voice in impacting what it does.
From as far back as our Founders and right up until today, these bedrock values have represented the core of our republic, bolstered our enduring democracy, and called to account the men and women who stand for election, ask for the voters' trust, and serve as the people's representatives. This is also the story of the merits of transparency and its role in our government at all levels—allowing the people to see, shape, and understand a democracy that is, ultimately, theirs and theirs alone.
As our government has grown, so, too, has its influence over and connection to nearly every aspect of our lives. In the process, it has extracted a steep price from the people it is sworn to serve that cannot be measured even in the trillions of dollars. Today, government now knows far more about its people, while the people seem to know less and less about their government. As Washington's power has intensified, it has also given us more to fight about, more reason to argue, and driven us further apart.
This has also created a crisis of confidence in the presidency, the Congress, the bureaucracy, even our laws. Every American should worry about this. I hope every American will want to change it. But if government cannot even launch a functional website of the president's signature social goal of his health care plan—let alone balance the federal books and shrink the national debt—public cynicism will only rise.
It's not enough just to rage against this reality. A better way is to open up the system to the people and let information and access flow at the speed of light. Let's reveal as much of government as we can to as many people as possible, every chance we get. We need to give people not only an understanding of what government does but access to what government knows and restore the principle that public information is neither a hindrance nor a nuisance
Then—and only then—can Congress, the White House, or the massive federal system truly claim to have the consent of the governed.
We need to provide a better way to test and limit the power of Washington. For fifteen years, I've seen the best this capital has to offer, particularly at those times when we were trying to fix what was most wrong with it. For ten years, I served as a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the last four as chairman (though it probably seemed like forty to some of my Democrat colleagues).
This was a front-row seat to the tragic shortcomings of government as an institution and the disastrous choices made by an administration that has done special damage to its credibility and reputation. Barack Obama may have entered office promising hope and change, but his largely failed presidency will leave in its wake bitterness and division from coast to coast and most everywhere in between.
We did not seek to damage the Obama administration or negatively impact its standing among a majority of Americans. The actions of the White House did that. We only shone the light on what they did and what they were doing.
I am hopeful that the impact we made and the legacy we leave will extend far beyond these difficult years for our country. This book showcases brave, intrepid people and the tireless work they did, as in "watching the watchmen" and policing the powerful—following the trail of the truth wherever it took them and fighting back against inappropriate secrecy.
Sometimes that path led us to the inner sanctums of the Department of Justice, the State Department, the Pentagon, the IRS—even the White House. Other times, following the facts brought us to the offices of colleagues and even the front doors of friends. But we did not turn away.
This is also a story of good people engaged in a great calling—some anonymously, all courageously. For four years, the men and women of the Oversight Committee I chaired—members of Congress and staff alike—worked endless hours, scouring roomfuls of documents and weeks' worth of transcripts.
For four years, they withstood harsh attacks from the White House, a hostile press, and a war of words that often lasted into and through the night. For four years, they endured scorn and scowls from colleagues on the other side of the aisle—and even the disdain of many Republican friends.
We may have faced taunts from the president, opposition from the Democrats, and even obstruction from fellow Republicans, but it does not mean we stood alone. Almost every day that we investigated serial scandals in Washington and secretive wrongdoing in the executive branch, we were bolstered by supportive notes and uplifting calls from people all over the country—everyday Americans we would never know or even meet.
Many cheered us on. Others wondered what was taking so long. A few even volunteered to help. All those voices encouraged us to be dogged and determined, especially during the many times it would have been so easy to quit, drop the issue, close the book—or do a friend a favor. But we couldn't do that. So we pressed on. When you get elected to Congress, you take an oath. And when you volunteer to serve on the Oversight Committee, you pledge to transcend politics and party. At least you try. We've all fallen short before.
There is one group of people that deserves special mention: we owe a special debt to the whistle-blowers who came forward to tell the truth and in doing so risked all—and often lost much—because they possessed a sense of duty. This is their story, too.
One question I was asked more often than any other was: Why are you doing this? I never had the ideal response, because the answer seemed so obvious. We were watchdogs. We learned of wrongdoing in government and tried to reveal it. We found corruption and tried to expose it. We investigated the targeting of innocent Americans and tried to stop it.
This is also, though, the story of a life—my life. Mine is not a heroic story or even a terribly atypical one. It is a story combining the pride of immigrant heritage and immersion in what Ronald Reagan called the "American Experiment." It's a story also of midwestern values and a California dream. Of hard work and good fortune. Of a passion for innovation and desire to challenge the status quo. Of relentless discovery and continued blessings. Of service to country and service in Congress. Of looking for a way to have an impact and joining in a search for the truth.
If you can't change America for the better in Congress, you can't do it anywhere.
It should be left to others and to the judgment of history to decide if we succeeded. But I know in my heart that within this book is a presentation of events and occurrences that reveal an administration, executive branch, and federal government that exceeded their authority, abused their power, hid from accountability, and fought the public's right to know. That's why we did it. This is that story.
The Big Obstacle: Big Government
Good and bad actions within politics have often been done by substantially the same people, not by separate armies of saints and sinners.
Much of the bad behavior in Congress is small and inconsequential, though perhaps revealing of the mind-set of power brokers. There are the minor legends about members who require a car and driver to go one and a half blocks to work or the member who failed to board planes by their intended departure times so often that eventually one flight crew removed her luggage and asked her to consider another airline for all future flights.
Congress is an esteemed and magnificent institution, but also at times like a fraternity you never intended to rush.
I have been honored to travel to distant parts of the world with wise elder statesmen such as the late Representative Henry Hyde, a thinker and orator comparable to any of the great Supreme Court justices. But some of my colleagues in Congress have also brought shame upon themselves and the institution we serve.
The history of Congress is found in hallowed halls and revered documents—but also in Louisiana Representative William Jefferson's freezer, where he stashed some $90,000 in bribes (giving new meaning to the term "cold hard cash").
It's also found in the "bribery menu" prepared and kept by my fellow Californian Representative Randall "Duke" Cunningham. His district was adjacent to mine; I knew him well and considered him a friend. He started out a hero—a "top gun" pilot and flight instructor—but then developed a vast sense of entitlement and eventually pled guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes.
Both Cunningham and Jefferson had power, professional standing, and annual salaries many times over those of the average American. But they gave all that away, wound up in disgrace, and eventually did time in federal prison.
Too, there are the far more routine instances of perfectly legal overlap between massive public expenditures and closely related private-sector jobs, such as former Representative Billy Tauzin helping to craft the Medicare Part D subsidy for prescription medications—and promptly going to head the pharmaceutical industry lobbying group PhRMA upon his departure from Congress in 2005.
Think how helpful all those who pass through the revolving door can be to a select few. As one of my most trusted confidants, former Oversight Committee Staff Director Larry Brady, puts it, members of Congress and executive-branch appointees don't come to DC wondering what their next job will be and how much money they'll make at it—but after a few years, some do begin to think about it.
There is, of course, good and bad in any institution—and in each individual. The Founders created a nation that treasured liberty, but also owned slaves. They were antimonarchy but also suggested that the first American president travel in a gilded carriage and be addressed as "Your Majesty." Was that a sign of temptations to come? Thank goodness George Washington suggested the modest salutation still used today: Mr. President.
I do not deny that the office of the president, by tradition, is rightly shown great deference by both the Congress and the courts. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was essentially correct to think that he had the right as president to send the navy wherever he chose, with Congress periodically exercising the power of the purse strings, not the power of micromanagement, if it concludes the president has abused his authority. The goal of this book is not to weaken current or future presidents, nor to tilt the balance of power toward this or any future Congress.
If our president is to be a respected and effective commander in chief at home and first ambassador to a troubled world, even if he sometimes makes mistakes, the office must truly be seated with great powers—but those powers cannot, and should not, be unchecked.
If even some of the most esteemed figures in our history could not be fully trusted with the power of government, surely the current crop of politicians deserves the same or more scrutiny. Our nation's founders set the three branches of government in opposition, each a check on the others, as a bulwark against tyranny. But the massive growth of the executive branch has tilted the scale heavily in its favor, exposing all Americans to its excesses and abuses.
Safeguarding freedom for the next generations will depend upon employing strong and sensible restraints on the growing executive branch that are not dependent upon the whims or personalities of any Washington politician. They must endure beyond the debates of today.
An important step toward restoring balance and reducing the runaway charity-like spending power of Congress is to shine a light on some of its most flawed practices. I've lost count of the number of times we have been asked to vote on massive spending bills that almost none of my colleagues has completely read or fully understands. That's why I support the concept of a two-year budget cycle to at least give members of Congress, as well as the American people, a greatly enhanced ability to understand and impact the way in which trillions of dollars are being spent. The public has a right to know what the government is doing, and the truth is, we have much to learn from public input.
But we must go beyond just managing money. We must restore trust. The Oversight Committee has a rich and honorable history in bringing hard truths to the public's view.
Oversight is crucial, since government cannot be trusted always to do the right thing. Ideally, the Speaker of the House and Congress as a whole could bring contempt charges or other legal remedies to bear on the executive branch—or could, if they possessed the courage, be bolstered by legislation reaffirming that power. The Oversight Committee, by contrast, currently has only the ability to show what's wrong, not to punish anyone for it.
But showing what's wrong is not being silent about it. That's why the oversight function can make a difference.
For example, Harry Truman's leadership of a Senate committee to investigate wasteful military spending made him a prominent figure leading up to his selection as Franklin D. Roosevelt's final vice presidential running mate. In the late 1950s, Robert F. Kennedy first butted heads with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa while serving as chief counsel and investigator of a select congressional committee looking into corrupt union practices.
One of my own predecessors as chairman of the Oversight Committee was Representative Dan Burton (R-IN), who permanently altered the public perception of Al Gore by drawing attention to illegal campaign contributions the Clinton-Gore campaign had received from Buddhist monks who had clearly not taken vows of poverty.
Sometimes we even need oversight of the people who are supposed to be doing oversight, as when the committee, under the chairmanship of Representative Tom Davis (R-VA), exposed gross mismanagement and incompetence at the Mineral Management Service (MMS), which was tasked with leasing federal lands to gas and oil companies.
When Congress changed hands and Democrat Henry Waxman assumed the chair, he terminated our investigation, preferring to scrutinize businesses and industries he was unsympathetic to, rather than wrongdoing in the government and the public sector. I often wondered where the "G" in the OGR Committee went during his tenure.
He should have kept the focus on Washington, for he found himself embarrassed months later when an inspector general reported that MMS staffers had abused drugs and had affairs with members of the industries they were supposed to be keeping an eye on and from which they were supposed to be collecting royalties for the benefit of the taxpayers.
The irresponsibility of the MMS would become even more costly during its inept handling of events preceding the BP oil spill. How could there be so little blame placed on the government bureaucracy whose inspectors had given the rig an OK, had specified the location and manner of the drilling in so much regulatory detail, and had approved changes in the BP well's design that might have contributed to its failure?
I believe that if Waxman had not cast aside our investigation while it was still ongoing, there would have been a far greater likelihood of rooting out some of the real troubles in the MMS so it could have performed its duties and helped to prevent the BP oil spill.
But that didn't happen, another example of the fact that executive-branch bureaucrats are almost never fired—and almost never even known to the public by name. Congress rarely takes them to task, and, as a consequence, they tend to act as if they are beyond the reach of accountability. The MMS sure did.
There are also vast waste and corruption even in those few parts of government that conservatives support, including the military—and as an army veteran who rose to the rank of captain, this is a troubling truth. Congress was right to take the Pentagon to task for the essentially indiscriminate distribution of money in war-torn Iraq in which the United States essentially dropped bales of cash all over that nation in the desperate hope of winning local favor and jump-starting its economy.
Why was anyone surprised when corruption occurred?
More recently, the Oversight Committee brought to public awareness a true Washington spending scandal that engulfed, ironically, the General Services Association (GSA), which is charged with spending and purchasing for the federal government.
At a Las Vegas conference that was already unnecessary, the GSA spent $130,000 for preconference "scouting"; $75,000 on a bike-building training exercise; $19 per person for an "American artisanal cheese display"; $7,000 for sushi; $3,200 for a mind reader; $3,700 for T-shirts; and more than $2,500 on bottled water.
The Huffington Post reported that agency personnel also staged a parody video production of an awards show red-carpet entrance into a conference room gathering, during which GSA officials discussed the expensive, stylish designer clothes they were wearing. The acting GSA administrator at the time, Jeff Neely, who reports found encouraged organizers to make sure the conference was "over the top," described his outfit as totally Armani.
My personal favorite was a video filmed especially for the conference—inside GSA headquarters—featuring an employee playing a ukulele and singing a homespun ode to binge-spending culture and an office shopping spree on the taxpayers' dime.
Why was anyone surprised when corruption occurred there?
Much of what was discovered at the GSA was the result of an internal investigation by the agency's inspector general. That was good. What was troubling was the revelation that the GSA inspector general had briefed the Obama administration almost a year prior to the revelations about its findings of waste and wrongdoing at the lavish Las Vegas convention.
Rather than taking immediate action to suspend or dismiss those identified as responsible, the Obama administration instead let them have bonuses and took real personnel actions only when there were no more options for delay. It wouldn't be the last time that would occur.
Most of the time, though, we don't have embarrassing videos to tell the true story. So the Oversight Committee, with a staff of about eighty, can only present the truth and expose those agents of the executive branch who refuse to respond to its subpoenas and who decline to appear at the committee's hearings. We can't arrest wrongdoers or order bureaucrats who resist our subpoenas to be jailed. Our government desperately needs more, and more aggressive, oversight if we are to protect the American people from a bureaucracy with too much power and little accountability.
Government gets even the most practical, basic things wrong, as the rollout of the HealthCare.gov website revealed. Until very recently, chief information officers (CIOs) within the federal government, tasked with overseeing the government's computer systems, had little real power to ensure that the latest, most cost-effective and efficient technology is used—despite a long list of failed government computer systems, of which the first version of HealthCare.gov was only one unusually high profile example.
With the passage into law of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, which I authored, at least now CIOs will wield the power of the purse. During the HealthCare.gov rollout, by contrast, the CIOs claimed that they lacked the authority to intervene, and the evidence showed that their recommendations and objections were ignored or overruled by agency administrators who had little or no technological know-how. Whereas private sector entities arise, evolve, and fade away in response to market signals about what works and what doesn't, government agencies keep on failing and paying little or no price for it.
In response, I cosponsored what became the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) in 2014. It provides more financial information about government expenditures online, and in a standardized, comprehensible fashion. But even that faced an uphill battle.
To his credit, Vice President Joe Biden expressed enthusiasm for DATA but said he was chastised for meeting with me by President Obama's "Chicago crowd." In the end, the DATA Act passed the Congress overwhelmingly, and President Obama followed up on that momentum by signing it into law.
But the real challenge to reform comes not from Democrats or Republicans but from the established bureaucracy, which resists transparency and reform. In response, the last decade saw some important steps taken toward empowering the legislature to take the executive branch to task.
Chief among them, arguably, have been then–House Judiciary Committee Chairman Representative John Conyers (D-MI) bringing contempt of Congress charges against Bush White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten for their refusal to appear to testify about a mass firing of US attorneys. Another was the Oversight Committee's partial success during my chairmanship in forcing the release by the Department of Justice of documents related to its "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal. Also important was the passage by the House, thanks to Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), of the ENFORCE the Law Act of 2014, affirming Congress's standing to sue the president.
I believe we should give individual members of Congress standing to sue agencies for information necessary for the members to fulfill their representational duties. Agencies now often treat requests for information from rank-and-file members as little more than Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, but those members are responsible for approving funding for every agency and program of the federal government. How can they be expected to legislate without access to information to evaluate the performance of the programs? Giving them immediate access to the courts, to compel the immediate production of information related to matters before Congress, would produce better-informed lawmaking.
Oversight, after all, is not just about highlighting past abuses but, we hope, about preventing future ones.
The Answer: Transparency, Accountability, and Reform
Our political problems, then, are deep, systemic ones that cannot be solved through simple partisanship. The economist Arthur Laffer, a friend to me and a hero to many conservatives, considers Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter "the Four Stooges: the largest assemblage of bipartisan ignorance ever put on planet Earth." What he means is that the power and reach of government flourished with both Republicans and Democrats in the White House, with a GOP president signing on to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition, the usual bland calls for "bipartisanship" don't solve anything. Indeed, between some parts of government, such as those performing oversight and those being criticized, there ought to be an adversarial relationship.
Where members of Congress must be united, though, is when an administration resists congressional oversight. Members can disagree about whether an administration should be investigated, but when a committee of Congress issues a subpoena, any division between the parties about whether compliance is required diminishes the effectiveness of congressional oversight and the ability of the legislature to check abuses of the executive. Laws require compliance, and both parties have an interest in enforcing congressional subpoenas with the full power of that branch.
There are many historical precedents for Congress acting as a unified body to rein in executive overreach, but modern political practice dictates that the president's party in Congress plays defense, attacking oversight to blunt its effectiveness. My Democrat counterpart, ranking member Elijah Cummings, played the role of defense counsel with great zeal (the most senior member of the minority party on a committee is known as ranking member, leads the minority party's efforts, controls a third of the staff and budget for a committee, and is the counterpart of the committee chair).
Cummings closely coordinated efforts to defeat congressional oversight with officials in the Obama White House—a role he was handpicked for by Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi. She essentially gave him the job, pushing aside the previous top Democrat on the committee, the well-liked and respected Edolphus Towns. Cummings was by far the more confrontational and acerbic of the two, which surely came in handy, because for the Democrats assigned to the Oversight Committee, defending Obama was job one.
We may have had our political disagreements, then as now, but I am troubled that it overshadowed the fact that whether the latest scandal is the shocking treatment of veterans at VA hospitals, improper targeting of conservative groups by IRS officials, or reckless law enforcement operations such as Fast and Furious, there are deep, systemic problems in government. They can be solved only by significant, long-lasting institutional changes, including stronger protections for whistle-blowers, robust congressional investment in oversight, and real autonomy for the independent inspectors general that investigate each executive-branch agency.
These reforms can be aided substantially by making more information on government's actions available to the public through greater data transparency and other open government reforms. More on that later.
As proud as I am of all the work I've done in the private sector, I've come to realize that altering the federal bureaucracy for the better is an even more monumental task in some ways than creating a successful business.
The inventor and businessman Elon Musk is rightly praised for creating Tesla Motors, which may finally make electric cars profitable (even after electric cars floundered for so long that conspiracy theories suggested the government and automobile industry would never allow them to thrive). It's worth noting that he is making his patents available at no cost to anyone who produces pure electric cars, a generous and clever idea to grow a market in which he believes consumers will freely choose his product above all others.
He may have accomplished even more with his SpaceX program. He saw the prices of government-run space launches continually rising and knew there had to be a better way. There are always more efficient means of doing things, but government isn't likely to find them. The offer of a big prize on the open market can work wonders that Capitol Hill committee meetings cannot, including, in the case of SpaceX, designs that will be utilized in Mars missions and cargo shipments to the International Space Station—saving the government billions of dollars in reduced launch costs.
- On Sale
- Jul 12, 2016
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Center Street