Issa misuses immense power

My reading of the controversy over U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa’s recent behavior at a key House committee meeting is fairly straightforward.

The chairman misbehaved … badly.

He needs to be called down for his treatment of a senior member of his committee. What’s more, he needs to be called down for the interminable hearings he keeps conducting on matters that do not rise to the level of importance he’s attaching to them.

I refer to the IRS and Benghazi controversies.

This week he shut down the microphone of Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland as Cummings was trying to speak publicly about the IRS matter involving the tax agency’s vetting of conservative political action groups’ tax-exempt status. Democrats call it a witch hunt; Republicans say the IRS might have acted on orders from the White House. Except that independent analyses have determined the White House wasn’t involved.

Issa chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It doesn’t control much tax money. It isn’t by definition a “sexy” committee. Its role is to probe government functions and to ensure that government agencies are working efficiently.

This particular committee once operated under the name of Government Operations Committee, which was chaired for many years by my former congressman, the late Jack Brooks, a tough-as-nails Beaumont Democrat. Brooks was as partisan and mean as anyone I’ve ever known, but he didn’t send his committee on witch hunts looking scandals involving Republicans where none existed.

By my reckoning, Issa is misusing the immense power of his committee. He keeps calling IRS officials before his panel to ask them questions they’ve already answered, or have fallen back on their Fifth Amendment protections against possible self-incrimination. He’s spending a ton of public money on these investigations, about $14 million to date.

He’s also got his sights set on the Benghazi matter, the firefight that in September 2011 resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Issa alleges that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covered up what she knew and when she knew it. Government probes have determined there was fault in the way the State Department handled the crisis, but there is no evidence of a deliberate cover-up. Issa persists nonetheless.

The matter with Rep. Cummings is just one more example of the manner in which Issa is abusing the power of the gavel. He did apologize — more or less — to Cummings for cutting off his mic. Then he went on TV to portray Cummings’s outburst as a staged event.

Democrats sought a resolution to punish Issa. The GOP-controlled House, to no one’s surprise, shot it down.

There’s good news, though, in all of this. Issa’s term as chairman of this panel expires at the end of the year. I’m hoping he won’t do any more damage to the cause of “government reform” before he hands the gavel over to someone else.