By Justin Sink - 07/16/14 08:21 PM EDT
Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) fight with the White House reached a new peak on Wednesday as the administration ignored a subpoena for the director of President Obama’s Office of Political Strategy and Outreach to testify at the House Oversight Committee.
The White House’s lack of a response was “absurd” and “deeply disturbing,” according to Issa, but he did not make any promises to take the administration to court over David Simas’s refusal to testify.
Issa said his panel would look to “clarify” whether Obama intended to invoke executive privilege to deny Simas from testifying.
“The American people have a right to know if their tax dollars are being used for political activity,” Issa said, adding that the testimony was “critically important” to his investigation into whether the political office had violated the Hatch Act, prohibiting executive branch employees from partisan campaign activity.
“It is deeply ironic that an administration claiming to be the most transparent ever has resisted oversight of its political office and offered less cooperation than its predecessors,” Issa said.
The chairman told Politico he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of holding Simas in contempt.
Throughout the day, the White House and congressional Democrats needled Issa, who is nearing the end of his term at Oversight.
“Throwing out subpoenas like candy on Halloween has not served the functioning of that committee very well,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “It also has, I think, understandably caused a lot of people to tune him out. And I think that’s probably a source of some frustration to him.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on Oversight, suggested the subpoena was “political theater.” He noted that Issa had issued nearly 100 subpoenas — more than the previous three chairmen combined.
“I noted that these unilateral subpoenas began to spike last month after Speaker [John] Boehner announced that he was taking the Benghazi investigation away from this committee and transferring it to the new select committee,” Cummings said in another shot at Issa.
The recently re-opened West Wing political office is at the center of Issa’s latest effort to cast the Obama administration as secretive and corrupt.
Both sides have attempted to gain the upper hand in the dispute, pointing reporters to tangential evidence to boost their argument.
At the White House, Earnest criticized Issa for not attending a briefing offered by administration lawyers to committee staffers on Tuesday.
But Oversight staff pointed out that the meeting was intended to be a staff-level discussion, and was described as such in letters provided by the White House.
Issa, meanwhile, used the hearing on Wednesday to unveil for the first time an answering machine message left by former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in which she solicits a subordinate employee to donate to the president’s reelection campaign.
“This makes the claim by this administration, that they are doing everything right and should be immune from oversight, all the more indefensible,” Issa said.
The tape appeared to confirm allegations Solis had run afoul of the Hatch Act, which could create new headaches for the White House and for Solis. The Justice Department has said it was investigating the incident.
At the White House, Earnest refused to comment, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
“The clear guidance that every member of this administration has received is to follow the guidelines, both the spirit and letter of the Hatch Act,” he said.
Still, Solis’s possible violation — and her tenure in the administration — predates the reopening of the political office. Solis stepped down in January 2013.
Republican strategists say Issa’s push could prove a politically potent tool ahead of the midterm elections.
“Issa’s trying to show that the White House’s assertions that they’re the most transparent administration in history is nonsense,” said former GOP aide Ron Bonjean.
“Obama’s poll numbers are so low, spiraling downward, it’s almost impossible to turn them around,” Bonjean said. “Issa subpoenaing the White House to get them to work with the committee isn’t going to help Obama.”
Still, Bonjean said, there’s little risk for Issa drawing Obama into the spat.
Democrats have embraced Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) proposed lawsuit against the president, saying it underscores their narrative that the GOP wants to pick fights with the president rather than legislate.