Yesterday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) issued his first subpoena of the Obama administration with a request that Department of Homeland Security employees “testify about the department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies and practices.” The subpoena has already caused a controversy due to Issa’s partisan approach. According to the Washington Post, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member on the committee, penned a letter demanding to know why Issa’s staff deliberately circumvented the Democrats on the committee. Homeland Security staffers had been willing to comply voluntarily, and Cummings charged, “all three subpoenas appear unnecessary at this time and could have been avoided if you had adequately consulted with me and other Members of the Committee.”
In January, Issa made clear that he intends to scrutinize logs of FOIA information, possibly revealing the identities of various journalists and citizens who have issued requests to the government. As the New York Times has noted, Issa’s “extraordinary” demand “worries some civil libertarians” and could have a chilling effect to journalists. While Issa’s spokesmen have brushed aside criticism and claimed that the chairman’s purpose is aimed at improving government responses to the FOIA process, Issa’s personal record on FOIA undercuts his credibility. During the Bush administration, Issa was a loyal partisan who repeatedly tried to crush attempts at expanding FOIA and greater government transparency, even at the DHS, his current subpoena target:
— Issa Tried To Kill A Landmark Expansion Of FOIA Law: In 2007, a bipartisan bill HR 1309 was proposed to expand the FOIA process, including a tracking system for submitters to view the status of their request, new reporting requirements for congressional oversight, and a provision to ensure that requests not processed within twenty days would not require a fee. The Bush administration fought vigorously against the bill and promised to veto it. Issa even sponsored an amendment to the bill to kill off the proposed “open records policy,” claiming Al Qaeda would “harvest” the data. In the end, the bill passed by an overwhelming majority in the House, despite Issa’s “no” vote. Unfortunately, it died in the Senate.
— Issa Co-sponsored The Original Bill To Exempt DHS From FOIA Law: In 2002, Issa co-sponsored the bill to merge several agencies into one new expanded bureaucracy called the Homeland Security Department. Issa’s bill included a provision exempting the agency from some FOIA requests. Repeatedly, Issa voted against amendments to remove this exemption from DHS. For example, he voted against an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to remove the FOIA exemption. Issa even supported an amendment that explicitly expanded the FOIA exemption to his DHS bill.
— Issa Helped Karl Rove And Bush Allies Hide Government E-Mails In RNC Accounts: In 2008, the House Oversight Committee investigated the fact that an estimated 5 million e-mails from Bush administration servers vanished from the president’s office. Although it was widely believed that White House adviser Karl Rove had used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts, in violation of the Presidential Records Act, to hide official communications, Issa used his position on the committee to try to squash the inquiry.
While it is laudable to strengthen the FOIA process, Issa’s behavior suggests that he is simply out to create a partisan investigation. For one thing, Issa’s position on the FOIA process appears to radically change depending on which party controls the White House. Furthermore, Issa’s backhanded attempt to sideline Cummings and other Democrats on the Oversight Committee undermines the legitimacy of his subpoena. Asked about Cummings’ letter, Issa’s press secretary Kurt Bardella cynically replied, “Another day, another complaint and more righteous indignation, what else is new?”
Ironically, since Congress exempted itself from FOIA law, Issa has been less than forthcoming about record requests into his own office. At the behest of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, several lobbyists have provided letters regarding a request by Issa to entertain proposals from corporations seeking his help in eliminating regulations. Issa has not voluntarily released all of the other letters he received from lobbyists. Also, Issa has so far ignored a request by a group called the IssaFiles to respond to serious ethical questions raised by a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza. The ten questions relate to a suspected arson at a factory insured by Issa earlier in his career.