Commentary Magazine


Darrell Issa and the Criminalization of Politics

Politico reports that

Rep. Darrell Issa, the conservative firebrand whose specialty is lobbing corruption allegations at the Obama White House, is making plans to hire dozens of subpoena-wielding investigators if Republicans win the House this fall. … Issa has told Republican leadership that if he becomes chairman, he wants to roughly double his staff from 40 to between 70 and 80. And he is not subtle about what that means for President Barack Obama. At a recent speech to Pennsylvania Republicans here, he boasted about what would happen if the GOP wins 39 seats, and he gets the power to subpoena.

“That will make all the difference in the world,” he told 400 applauding party members during a dinner at the chocolate-themed Hershey Lodge. “I won’t use it to have corporate America live in fear that we’re going to subpoena everything. I will use it to get the very information that today the White House is either shredding or not producing.”

In other words, Issa wants to be to the Obama administration what Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) was to the Clinton administration — a subpoena machine in search of White House scandals.

For the sake of the country, should the Republicans take the House in November, I hope Representative Issa is very careful with the power he wields.

I say this fully understanding the role congressional oversight has in our form of government. I know that sometimes subpoenas are necessary and that corruption needs to be rooted out where we find it. And I am troubled by how the Obama administration has dealt with the Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff matters, which has been misleading and troublesome (though I’m less inclined than I originally was to think that violations of law might have occurred; for the reasons why see here and here).

Still, I hope that Republicans, if they gain power in November, are more responsible in using their oversight powers than some Democrats (and some Republicans in the past) have been.

I worked in the Bush White House and the Reagan administration when people like Representative Henry Waxman, an irresponsible partisan who chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, went on fishing expeditions. I know how miserable congressional and criminal investigations can make the lives of good (and innocent) people. I know how distracting these things can be from those serving in government, many of whom do so at considerable personal and financial cost.

I believed at the time — and I believe more strongly now than I did then — that Justice Scalia was correct when, in his 1988 dissent in Morrison v. Olson, he wrote:

How frightening it must be to have your own independent counsel and staff appointed, with nothing else to do but to investigate you until investigation is no longer worthwhile — with whether it is worthwhile not depending upon what such judgments usually hinge on, competing responsibilities. And to have that counsel and staff decide, with no basis for comparison, whether what you have done is bad enough, willful enough, and provable enough, to warrant an indictment. How admirable the constitutional system that provides the means to avoid such a distortion. And how unfortunate the judicial decision that has permitted it.

Justice Scalia was dealing with the Independent Counsel Act, which is certainly different from congressional oversight and investigations. The constitutional issues are quite dissimilar. But there is also a deep truth that applies in both circumstances.

We need to end the criminalization of politics. We need to stop treating opponents as if they are enemies. And we need to halt efforts to destroy people with whom we have political differences.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that if Republicans were to act responsibly, Democrats would necessarily follow suit. They might. It depends on who is in charge of which committees. A vindictive man like Waxman is not likely to change his ways. Regardless, Republicans should act in a way that is in the public interest. They can only control what they can do, not what others do. And the right thing to do is to resist the temptation to pay back Democrats or, in the name of pursuing the truth, deal subpoenas to White House aides as if they were cards being dealt at a poker match.

There are no hard and fast rules that apply to these situations. It requires people of good judgment and good character to sort through which investigations are warranted and which are not.

If Republicans take control of the House in November, let’s hope cool heads and irenic spirits prevail — and that on the matter of subpoenas and criminal investigations, the bar is set quite high. We don’t need Inspector Javert disrupting our politics and innocent people’s lives.

I get that politics ain’t beanbag. But I also know that politics can be conducted with more grace than it is. And all of us, myself included, would be wise to step back from the heated nature of American politics and from time to time reflect on the words of our greatest president. In circumstances far more difficult and divisive than ours, with much deeper wounds to heal and much greater differences to overcome, Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Those words apply now as they did then.

About the Author

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.




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