Looking for Dirt in All the Wrong Places

GOP Congressman Darrell Issa, head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is a regular in front of the cameras and on the Sunday talk shows. He will investigate President Obama's role in the IRS actions, the attack on Benghazi, Wikileaks and a host of other hoped-for misdeeds.  Issa is zealous about finding dirt on the President.  “I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks,” Issa said.

A look back in our history tells us that Congressional investigations aren't always what they appear on the surface.

It was 1953.  Eisenhower was President. The Republican Party had just won the majority of Senate seats. Chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), the Senate launched an extensive investigation of the State Department, the Army and even Voice of America.  McCarthy had regularly accused the previous Democratic president of collusion with Communists. There were 161 hearings and 395 witnesses called. The hearings were eventually discredited.

It was 1973. President Nixon had just won re-election. Democrats had won majorities in the Senate and House. The burglary of the Democratic campaign offices in 1972 was investigated by the Senate in hearings that lasted over a year and that showed clear responsibility by the Nixon White House. Nixon was impeached and resigned in disgrace in 1974.
It was 1987.  Reagan was President. Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats the House. We learned of an elaborate arms for hostages deal, supplying weapons illegally to Iran while also secretly arming the Contras, in violation of laws passed by Congress.  A joint committee of both houses launched an investigation of the role of Reagan and White House officials. 14 indictments and 11 convictions included the Secretary of Defense and two of the President's National Security Advisors.

It was 1995. Clinton was President. The Republican Party had just won control of both houses of Congress.  The Senate began a yearlong investigation into the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas, hoping to uncover criminal activity by the Clintons. No smoking guns were found.  The House began the most expensive (costing $23 million) and time-consuming investigation in US history, looking for evidence of illegal Chinese contributions to Clinton's campaign. After 18 months and over 1000 requests for information, no smoking gun was found.

It was 1999. Clinton was still President. The House Oversight Committee launched a 13 month investigation of Attorney General Janet Reno over the Waco incident, duplicating what a special prosecutor had already investigated.  No fault was found.

For the entire 8 years of Clinton's presidency, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and committees of the Senate and House promoted and investigated controversies ranging from Travelgate to adultery. In spite of a full staff devoted entirely to finding dirt on the Clintons, Starr was only able to make one charge stick: lying under oath about a sexual dalliance. Clinton was impeached in 1998 by a Republican Senate.

It was 2007. Bush Jr. was President. The House had been under Republican control for his both of his terms. Congressman Davis (the same who investigated Waco) headed the Oversight Committee.  Davis refused to hold hearings or investigate any potential White House misdeeds. 9/11, Cheney's secret energy task force, Abu Ghraib abuses, the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, the rush to war against Iraq, the torture memos, the Abramoff corruptions, Enron -- no hearings were held on any of these.

It is 2013.  In 2011, the Republican Party regained its House majority.  Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a full summer of subpoenas and investigations planned to attack the Obama administration.

Hearings, subpoenas and investigations have been among Congressional powers forever.  But when Republicans control the House and a Democratic President is in office, they take on an entirely different flavor.  Hearings about the tobacco industry or pharmaceutical abuses are replaced with fishing expeditions to find something, anything to discredit the President. It happened throughout Clinton's term (he had Republican Congresses) and has been the Republicans' main agenda since winning the House in 2011.

There are serious executive branch abuses worthy of this attention -- Watergate and Iran-Contra. Then there is raw politicking.  Nothing gets an obscure Congressman more attention that the power to charge and subpoena.

Never mind today's news that Issa himself has a pretty shady history (indicted for auto theft, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, a hit and run and accusations of arson). 

I'm ready for "oversight" to mean responsible oversight of government, including the President.  I'm sick of over-dramatized "investigations" that bog down both branches of government at great expense to taxpayers. When Congress and the President are from opposite parties, investigations happen -- in spades.  When they're the same party, abuses like the torture memos and the lies that got us into Iraq get free passes.  If you're conducting too many hearings without finding substantial wrongdoing, you're wasting time and money. Watergate and Iran-Contra proved actual administration wrong-doing. The rest was just obstruction, preventing presidents from attending to the nation's work.