Byron York

Speaking to a group of left-wing activists at the annual Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas, Nev., Democratic Sen. Al Franken painted a bleak picture of what will happen if Republicans win control of Congress.

"They'll implement a truly dangerous agenda," Franken said on July 24. "Everything is on the table, from repealing healthcare reform to privatizing Social Security." Not only will GOP lawmakers "punch loopholes in our regulations"; they will also "shred the social safety net," while their "corporate backers" work to enact "an even more dangerous agenda."

Bad as all that might be, Franken suggested that a little-known Republican congressman from California is plotting something even worse. "Darrell Issa is planning to double his staff," Franken said, referring to the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "and embark on a witch hunt in hopes of bringing down the Obama administration."

A lot of Republicans chuckled when they heard that. Issa is planning to double his staff? Well, yes, that's what happens when a party takes over the House. Since 1995, the practice of the oversight committee has been to have a two-to-one ratio of majority to minority staff. When Democrats took control after winning the House in 2006, they doubled their staff, while the losing Republicans cut theirs in half. If Republicans win in 2010, they will double their staff and Democrats will cut theirs in half. That's the way it works.

Perhaps Franken, who has only been a senator for a year, and always with a big Democratic majority, doesn't know that. He has never experienced the dislocation a change in party control brings to Capitol Hill. Of course, if Democrats lose the Senate in November, he'll learn quickly.

Staffing numbers aside, the core of Franken's charge is that Issa will carry out a "witch hunt" to bring down President Obama. By "witch hunt," Franken is referring to what Republicans call "oversight."

"Darrell Issa's sole responsibility is to ensure that oversight keeps pace with a government that has exploded in responsibility and size," says Issa representative Kurt Bardella. "This committee exists for the purpose of looking at the government bureaucracy and ensuring that, due to legitimate and vigorous oversight, the bureaucracy works best to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars."

I asked Issa's staffers for a list of the issues on which Issa has spent the most time in the 18 months Obama has been in office. First is mortgage giant Countrywide's favoritism in granting sweetheart loans to lawmakers, congressional staffers and executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Second is the Securities and Exchange Commission's civil case against Goldman Sachs. Third is the Obama administration's response to the gulf oil spill. Fourth is the administration's handling of the Home Affordable Modification Program, which is supposed to help struggling mortgage holders keep their homes. And fifth is the Treasury Department's management of TARP money for the so-called "hardest hit" housing markets.

Would any of those investigations qualify as witch hunts intended to bring Obama down? Unlikely, especially since many Democrats agree that such programs should be carefully watched. But Franken appears to be worried about other things.

"We have seen what happens when Republicans take control of Congress with a Democratic president," Franken told the Netroots group, "and it ain't pretty." In that reference to the Clinton years, he was suggesting that scandal and impeachment will follow a Republican win in November. But that is a misreading of the past. The extraordinary nature of the Clinton scandals was more the result of the independent-counsel law than GOP control of Congress. Does anyone believe the Republican House would have impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 without an independent counsel's report as justification? These days, with the independent-counsel law long gone, what Democrats are worried about is not impeachment but rather aggressive oversight of a Democratic administration.

The workings of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have long been a mix of legitimate oversight and partisan wrangling. It has been that way under Democrats, and it has been that way under Republicans. But since Democrats generally don't want to investigate Democratic presidents and Republicans generally don't want to investigate Republican presidents, the committee is most effective when opposing parties control the House and the White House. That's the simple reason the public would benefit if Darrell Issa and the GOP were running the committee -- no matter what Al Franken says.


Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner