Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is the would-be congressional guard dog whose investigative technique consists entirely of shooting first and asking questions never. The chairman of the House committee on oversight and investigation has finally been called on his practice of issuing subpoenas for documents and releasing them heedlessly, taking testimony and editing it down in the most dishonest way, and running off to Fox News in full spittle mode.
The pushback comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, which evidently has grown weary of Issa's "oversight" of the Affordable Care Act rollout. Issa has been right on top of the problems with the federal website, but his investigations seem designed less to get to the bottom of things and identify best practices than merely to get in the way.
On Oct. 31 Issa subpoenaed unredacted documents related to the security testing of the federal website, HealthCare.gov. He was pushing the notion that the website is wide open to invasions of privacy. HHS was quite properly concerned that documents Issa sought could, if made public, increase the privacy risk. Information identifying security holes in the website might fall into the wrong hands, giving hackers a road map to users' personal information.
The agency also was quite properly concerned that Issa and his staff aren't above leaking such information for their own partisan ends; he's been accused of doing exactly that during his investigation of the Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack last year, when he allegedly compromised the safety of several Libyans working with the U.S. government by dumping sensitive State Department documents online.
HHS observed in a letter to Issa on Thursday that it was concerned about his refusal to commit to keeping the documents safeguarded, "particularly in light of reports that sensitive materials were disclosed through various investigations." (Touche.) The agency points out that it's not refusing to provide the documents. Indeed, it has already done so, allowing committee staff to view the material under secure conditions and take notes, which also have to stay in a secure room. It has also offered to let an independent expert examine the documents and attest to the risk of letting them out in public.
There's certainly a flavor of take-your-subpoena-and-shove-it in the HHS response to Issa. And if Issa had shown himself to be genuinely committed to ferreting out in the public interest error and wrongdoing by government agencies, he would deserve our sympathy.
But he hasn't. Consequently, every major investigation he has mounted since assuming his chairmanship has been an embarrassing bust. Remember the IRS investigation? That started with a claim that IRS agents were "targeting" tea party groups for tax scrutiny; the full facts show that the agency, struggling to apply the law prohibiting tax exemptions and anonymity for nonprofits' political activity, scrutinized organizations across the political spectrum, including "progressive" and "green" groups. But Issa pumped it up into a full-scale "scandal" for the inattentive.
The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act has allowed him to spread himself. On no evidence whatsoever, he has accused the Obama administration of political manipulation of the healthcare website. He has gotten in the way of necessary outreach to help citizens gain access to insurance. Responsible lawmakers would want to see more outreach to implement this complicated law; Issa just wants to block it.
Issa's favorite tool is the "partial transcript." He takes testimony from a government official, then hands it out in dribs and drabs for maximum misleading effect. What's amazing is that news organizations not named Fox still fall for this. Only a few weeks ago, CBS News aired an overheated report on the subject of the website's security flaws, based entirely on an Issa-standard partial transcript. The story promptly collapsed when committee Democrats elicited public testimony based on the rest of the transcript, which turned out not to say what Issa claimed it said.
Last summer we described Issa as "majestically useless." (While Congress was leaving the sequester in place, harming millions of Americans and reducing economic growth, he was busy introducing a bill to name U.S. coastal waters after Ronald Reagan.)
That was unfair, to both the majestic and the useless. Issa's worse than useless. He wastes everybody's time haring off after investigative targets that don't warrant anyone's attention, ginning up scandals where they don't exist, and leaving unexamined governmental activities that actually could do with some serious oversight. HHS's exasperated response to him was long overdue.