The battle to become the next Darrell Issa
By: Jake Sherman
March 9, 2014 10:31 PM EDT
It’s an opportunity that has some Republicans salivating: becoming the next Darrell Issa.
The California Republican’s perch atop the headline-grabbing House Oversight and Government Reform Committee doesn’t wrap up until the end of this year, but a high-profile group of Republicans is already jockeying to take his gavel.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah wants it and is building up chits among his colleagues. Veteran Rep. John Mica of Florida is considering making a run for the job. Ohio Reps. Jim Jordan and Mike Turner have thrown their names into the mix.
The contest is shaping up to be one of the most intense power struggles in the House, and the result will have major implications. The job will immediately transform the winner into a national force as President Barack Obama’s chief tormentor in Congress, wielding huge influence — and subpoena power — over the last two years of his administration.
And, to add a dash of drama, Issa says he doesn’t want to let go of the committee. Facing a term limit, he is leaning toward asking leadership to waive Republican rules so he can serve two more years.
“I’ve made no bones about it: I would certainly think that I might be an appropriate candidate for just two more years to finish up, with continuity, the Obama administration,” Issa said in an interview. “But that’s a decision of the steering committee.”
It’s a high-stakes decision for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the small group of leadership allies who select committee chairs.
Issa has caused plenty of embarrassment for the Obama administration during his chairmanship. He helped expose the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups and has dug deep into the 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
But he has also caused plenty of heartburn for Republicans. Just last week, Issa caught flak for cutting off his Democratic counterpart’s microphone after a hearing. After vigorously defending the move and defiantly saying “he owes me an apology,” Issa offered a mea culpa late Thursday.
It would be no shock if Republicans sought new leadership after keeping Issa atop the panel for six years.
Republican insiders say they aren’t likely to grant Issa’s request for two more years and instead have become impressed with his protégé, the third-term Chaffetz.
Chaffetz is shrewdly working an inside game to gain favor at the top levels of the GOP power hierarchy, where decisions on chairmanships are made. He’s traveled to Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa to raise money for Republican candidates and has an event scheduled in Illinois in the coming weeks. His biggest coup: He’s bringing Mitt Romney to a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser in Utah. NRCC Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) will make the trip to the event.
Chaffetz said he wants to show that he goes out of his way and takes “time out of my personal schedule” to help Republicans bolster their majority.
“I put my flag in the ground early; I’m not trying to be coy,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “I’m being direct that I fully intend to put my name in to be the next chairman of the Oversight Committee. It’s something I’ve wanted to do before I even got to Congress. The Oversight Committee has been my No. 1 choice every single term.”
For his part, Issa — whose San Diego-area seat is safe for Republicans — is a fundraising powerhouse. He had more than $3 million in his campaign account as of the end of 2013, and $237,000 in a separate campaign kitty.
One thing Chaffetz lacks is seniority — and Mica’s got it. He’s been in Congress since 1992, and he is drawing on that to portray himself as the steady hand House Republicans need.
“It’s something I would strongly consider, but I don’t think now is the time to campaign,” said Mica, who said he’s vehemently opposed to giving Issa two more years as chairman. “I think it’s better to support Chairman Issa. I don’t like to get into discussions about it. But I think I would have pretty strong support; given it’s the last two years of the Obama administration, they’d want someone experienced and having a record of taking on some tough issues.”
Republican insiders say Mica doesn’t have a chance. Jordan and Turner are also long shots.
Chaffetz’s evolution on Capitol Hill reflects his desire to become a serious player in internal GOP politics. Once eager and willing to speak out against Boehner, Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s decisions, Chaffetz has calmed a bit and has focused intently on his committee work. Just 21 days after the Benghazi attacks, Chaffetz went to Libya — his subcommittee was responsible for a chunk of the committee’s investigative work on the attack.
Chaffetz also fits the bill for the top investigative committee. His district is extremely conservative, so constant tossing of red meat isn’t a political risk for him. The former Brigham Young University placekicker is also a constant presence on television, appearing on everything from MSNBC to Fox News.
The challenge for the contenders will be to prove he or she can take Issa’s best characteristics — such as his ability to promulgate a media narrative — and ditch the worst.
Chaffetz is already drawing the contrast between himself and Issa.
“I have the greatest respect for Darrell Issa,” he said. “He’s been a great mentor to me. He’s opened the door of possibilities at every step. I’m a different person, would take a different approach. I think everybody’s different and has their own style.”
The type of waiver Issa is seeking is rarely granted: The only person to get an exemption in 2012 was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was returning to head the Budget Committee after running for vice president. Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is also term-limited.
“The steering committee needs to pick the best person for the last two years,” Issa said. “No one can chair a committee forever. So whether I leave at the end of this term or two years later is a steering committee decision. But in either case, I do have a number of really great, hard-working subcommittee chairmen, and I do have confidence that any one of them could oversee the committee.”
Issa has senior slots on Judiciary and on Energy and Commerce — but nothing will give him the power his Oversight gavel has afforded. Asked if he would leave Congress if he doesn’t get to serve two more years at Oversight, Issa said, “I have other committees, you know.”