Watchdog: The Real Stories behind the Headlines from the Congressman Who Exposed Washington's Biggest Scandals.
Hachette Book Group, 2016
Darrell Issa, Republican Representative of the 49th district of California since 2001, was Ranking Member and former Chair of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (or "Oversight Committee") from 2011 to 2015. The Oversight Committee has "legislative jurisdiction over issues related to government management and accounting measures." Issa's autobiography first describes his upbringing in Cleveland and then his insider's perspective as a member then chair of the Oversight Committee. Issa's time within the Oversight Committee coincided with the Obama Administration, of which he has much to say. The scandals on which Issa report have already made headlines in the mainstream media and may be familiar to most Americans. While personable in style and topical in content, the current book relies mainly on the mainstream media, rather than government documents, to fill in the details. This is somewhat surprising as Issa himself has called for and sponsored legislation promoting government transparency.
Perhaps of interest to discerning readers is what Issa does not say about himself in his book. The current review will explore a few points of Issa's life before his career in national politics and then focus on a few of the findings the Oversight Committee brought to public light during his tenure.
Growing up in the 1960s
Issa was born into a working-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, his father a second-generation Lebanese Orthodox Christian and his mother a Mormon. Issa's father held two or three jobs ("or more") at a time--Issa emulated his father's work ethic. Issa took on the menial jobs as a youth that are derided today as "jobs no American would do," delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, shoveling snow and even delivering kosher poultry. Issa grew up in Cleveland Heights, a "predominantly Jewish" neighborhood at the time. Issa relates interaction with Jewish neighbors and observing Jewish religious rites, thereby gaining familiarity with Judaism.
Issa notes that while Clevelanders during the 1960s and early 1970s may have been "unfamiliar" with the term "diversity," he states that he had more in common with his neighborhood fellows than not, and that Cleveland was a "melting pot". Issa does not elaborate on what he means by "commonality". In retrospect, there was little diversity in Cleveland up until the end of World War II. Following World War II, blacks steadily grew in numbers in northern cities--by 1970, blacks made up 19% of Cleveland, clustering mainly in all-black neighborhoods. (1) Today, just under half of Cleveland Heights is black. It is unlikely that most people in Cleveland Heights during the 1960s could have imagined the extent of racial transformation that their community would undergo--over time, synagogues were turned into churches. How does Issa feel about these levels of "diversity" today?
Cleveland was, as Issa describes it, an "indisputable" part of his childhood. While the 1960s was marked by dramatic changes in demographics and a rise in egalitarian ideology in Cleveland and other northern cities, the current book mentions none of these. Two all-black neighborhoods, Hough and Glenville, are just a few miles away from Cleveland Heights. In 1966, Hough was the site of black rioting and Glenville thereafter in 1968, following a shootout between Cleveland Police and black nationalists that left seven dead. However, Issa, a teenager at the time, has nothing to say in the current book about Cleveland's racial tensions and violence.
In the book, teenaged Issa interacts with a number of adults in his predominantly Jewish neighborhood, including the rabbi who hired him to deliver kosher poultry. The book does not relate what these people, including his parents, thought about the chaos occurring just a few miles away from their homes.
Issa was probably not entirely unaware of current events. He mentions, at least twice, the 1970 "shooting deaths of four students" at Kent State University. Issa does not offer his views on the Kent State shooting, though one could guess he follows the conventional line, that the "students" were shot without provocation. (2) It interesting that Issa chose to mention Kent State rather than the race riots that occurred minutes away from his home.
Issa built his currently profitable business from the ground up, and did not appear to cut corners or seek special treatment. He supports free market capitalism and less government involvement in private and business affairs. Thus, as a concerned businessman, Issa could have given the standard socioeconomic line that black rioting at the time was due to a frustrated black underclass with no opportunity for advancement. Elsewhere in the book, Issa points out that taxpayers would "inevitably be sent the bill" for rapidly expanded government. He denounces government programs that "simply take from some people and give to others." From this, he could have elaborated on the generous welfare policies at the time, which discouraged blacks from gathering the wherewithal to support themselves, thereby locking them to a perpetual cycle of poverty. Having lived through the era of President Johnson's "Great Society" and perhaps witnessed the tumultuous effects of the "Great Society," Issa passes on the opportunity to at least jab at the liberal welfare programs and the creation of new, intrusive federal bureaucracies.
Another fact not mentioned in the current book is that Issa was co-chair of the 1996 campaign to pass the "California Civil Rights Initiative," or Proposition 209, prohibiting the state of California from granting "preferential treatment" on the bases of race, sex and ethnicity in "public employment, public education" and "public contracting." Perhaps the idea of mandated racial quotas or qualification based purely on ethnicity did not sit well with Issa either during the 1960s or the 1990s. Given what Issa did not mention, one is left wondering what his true feelings are on race and diversity and if they influence his thinking at all as a legislator.
While Issa takes the Obama Administration, and Democrats in general, to task on a number of issues, he does not hesitate to chastise his fellow Republicans as well. He has pointed out Representatives from both parties, such William Jefferson and Randall Cunningham, of being guilty of "bad behavior." It is apparent from the book that Issa is not bound to his party by mere loyalty. Rather, personal interests motivate his politics. For example, his nascent business thrived during the 1980s and Issa attributes this to President Reagan's emphasize on "smaller government and free-market themes." However, Issa bemoans President George H.W. Bush's "betrayal of his no new taxes pledge" and asks why Bush was unable to rein in spending rather than raise new taxes. As a Representative, Issa voted against President George W. Bush's Troubled Assets Relief Program, as it "lacked any semblance of useful accountability." While a junior Representative, as a matter of doing what he thought was best for California, Issa went against the wishes of the Republican Party and supported the 2003 effort to recall then-Governor Gray Davis.
To Issa, government should generally avoid playing a significant role in business. When business and government do mix, Issa notes that results are "not necessarily ... beneficial...." For example, he points out the revolving door between government and the private sector, as in the case of former Representative Billy Tauzin, who "crafted Medicare Part D subsidies for prescription medications" and then "promptly" headed a pharmaceutical industry lobbying group after leaving Congress. Issa also relates that numerous government officials, both Democrats and Republicans, "who were in a position to help Countrywide Financial Corporation in regulatory matters," were given highly discounted mortgages and special treatment. At the same time, Countrywide was a major provider of home loans to people who were absolutely unable to afford them in the first place, fueling an unsustainable housing bubble. Colluding with Countrywide, officials at Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association), Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) and Issa's Congressional colleagues quashed legislation that would have "reined in" activity at the very institutions that Issa considers to have been the source of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Issa suggests that institutional corruption directly led to the housing bubble and subsequent economic turmoil. Amazingly, it does not appear that any government official or "a handful of legislators and regulators" entrusted "with so much power" were charged with any crime.
Oddly, Issa does not reference a report he issued in 2009 as a Ranking Member of the Oversight Committee that indeed argued that government social engineering and intrusion into the housing market on the one hand and "unethical" collusion of the financial industry with government to stifle reforms on the other hand led to the housing bubble and subsequent Financial Crisis. (3) Issa's report mentioned previous Administrations' pervasive calls for increased home ownership by racial minorities--those who were least likely to afford even a down payment. Financial institutions, mandated by law to increase home ownership, loosened loan standards so that people who were credit risks and those who did not have a job could qualify for loans several times their current net worth. (4) In fact, raising loan standards and demanding a down payment from risky, low-income applicants were viewed as discrimination. While Issa's report chastises the underlying principle, "equality of outcome," that led to greatly relaxed loan standards, greater uncertainty of the quality of loans held by financial institutions, and taxpayers ultimately footing the bill, this report is not mentioned in the current book.
One interesting point mentioned in Issa's report is that Hispanics, compared to other ethnic groups, appeared to have benefited the most from no-down payment mortgages--and have suffered the most in terms of lost housing value after the bubble burst.5 Ethnic interest groups (e.g. the House Hispanic Caucus) played a key role in pressing for loose loan standards and this fact receives almost no mention in histories of the housing bubble and Financial Crisis. Issa's assessment of the cause of the housing bubble would be consistent with his stance on "affirmative action." Issa's report, or something similar, could have been an entire book chapter. Instead, Issa spends a few pages focusing on the corruption of Countrywide and its CEO, Angelo Mozilo.
The mission of the Oversight Committee is to ensure that Americans receive an "efficient, effective government." Certainly, protecting US citizens abroad is one of the responsibilities of the US government. In the case of the Islamic "terrorist assault" on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, in which four were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, this was very much not an example of "efficient, effective government." The protracted denials by the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that they had no information that the assault was premeditated , because they thought it was spontaneous, does not suggest "efficient, effective government" as well. Issa relates that the Obama Administration had received numerous security warnings from US agents in Libya well before September 2012. That Libya was unstable should not have been at all surprising to the State Department, as the US and its allies overthrew Muammar Gaddafi the previous year. At the very least, high Administration officials who ignored repeated requests to improve security, leading to the deaths of four Americans, should have been cited for gross negligence and dismissed. However, the Obama Administration did nothing and backed Secretary Clinton. A year after the attack, at a Senate hearing, after being asked "why the American people had been mislead by the Obama administration," Secretary Clinton snapped, "What difference, at this point, does it make?" It was this same Hillary Clinton, Issa writes, who asked voters in 2016 to "make her the United States' command er-in-chief."
One other scandal covered by the Oversight Committee that does not suggest "efficient, effective government" relates to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and its "granting or denying nonprofit applications based upon ... [an organization's] political leanings." Initially, when confronted with this allegation in 2012, the IRS "downplayed rumors" and "denied everything." Next, what was to have been a routine investigation by the Treasury Inspector General took months and the IG stopped "being communicative" with the Committee. The IG finally reported in 2013 that the IRS had been using "inappropriate criteria" to target "conservative political groups" such as Tea Party-type groups. Issa reveals that, in 2010, the director of Exempt Organizations at the IRS, Lois Lerner, requested that conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status be subject to "greater scrutiny." It appears that during the Committee investigation, the IRS "lost" numerous key records and documents. (Issa notes, with sarcasm, how the IRS, the nation's tax collection agency, could so easily lose so many records.) Naturally, Issa relates, the Obama Administration, the IRS Commissioner and Committee Democrats fought the Committee investigation every step of the way. The Committee found that between 2010 and 2013, the IRS had "intentionally and consistently targeted" conservative groups--"not one" Tea Party-type group received tax-exempt status during this period. By contrast, Issa points out that the "Barack H. Obama Foundation," founded by the president's half-brother, applied for tax-exempt status in 2011 and the request was approved in "only thirty-four days." Issa indicates that by denying them nonprofit status, the efficacy of conservative groups was greatly diminished during the 2012 election season. The House approved a contempt-of-Congress citation against Lerner in 2014. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration denied any wrong doing and Attorney General Eric Holder declined to prosecute her.
That a government bureaucracy like the IRS can be used by the Executive Office to suppress ideologies that are unfashionable should disturb Americans. That ideologues within such bureaucracies are able to impose their views on others with impunity should further alarm Americans. In the case of the IRS, Issa suggests that any pretense to fairness is greatly diminished by the IRS's lack of transparency and cooperation during the Committee's investigation. By contrast, average citizens, under penalty of law, have no choice but to obey the government's dictates. Protection from an inefficient and ineffective government is yet another governmental bureaucracy, Congress,: its ideology and agenda changing with each election cycle, and together with an ideologically-driven judiciary:, ineffective government is yet another governmental bureaucracy, these do not inspire much confidence that the American people will be able to retain their fundamental rights.
(1) Rice-Spratlen, T. & Guest, A.M. (2002). Race and population change: A longitudinal look at Cleveland's neighborhoods. Sociological Forum 17: 105-135. In the Cleveland Heights area, in 1960, blacks made up less than 1% of residents. By 1970, 10% of residents were black. This jump in black numbers in Cleveland Heights is in part attributable to various desegregation schemes implemented by the city.
(2) Murphey, D.D. (1995). The Dispossession of the American Indian--And Other Key Issues in American History. Washington, DC: Scott-Townsend, p. 56. Then and today, leftists and the mainstream media revere the four "students" as "innocent martyrs" In fact, those killed and others wounded that day were anything but "innocent".
(3) The Role of Government Affordable Housing Policy in Creating the Global Financial Crisis of2008. https://oversight.house.gov/report/ the-role-of-government-affordable-housing-policy-in-creating-the-global-financial-crisis-of-2008/
(4) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/21/business/worldbusiness/21iht-admin.4.18853088.html;http:// www.nytimes.com/1999/09/30/business/fannie-mae-eas-es-credit-to-aid-mortgage-lending.html; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/ content/article/2008/06/09/AR2008060902626.html. As a consequence of the financial turmoil brought about by the accumulation of non-paying debt, lending institutions have now tightened standards, with the solution being, paradoxically, to loosen standards again: https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/notes/feds-notes/2016/ credit-availability-and-the-decline-in-mortgage-lending-to-minorities-after-the-housing-boom-20160929.html
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|Publication:||The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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