In First Hearing, Will Issa Investigate Countrywide's Loans to Democrats?

Congressman Darrell Issa, the new oversight cop in Washington, will announce his first hearing tomorrow, and Politico's Mike Allen has reported that it will focus on the mortgage crisis.

We won't know what the scope of this hearing will be until witnesses and a narrower topic is announced, and we won't know whether it will turn into a full-blown investigation until Issa's Oversight and Government Reform Committee receives testimony and documents and decides whether or not it's interested in pursuing further study.

It's possible, however, that this will turn quite political.

If committee Republicans choose to investigate the preferential loans received by Sens. Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad from Countrywide--loans that embroiled both senators in controversy almost two years ago--that's exactly what will happen, as Democrats would likely take offense at scrutiny of their colleagues, initiated in Issa's very first oversight actions as committee chairman. The word "witch hunt" would probably be used.

Dodd left Congress at the end of 2010. Conrad, meanwhile, announced today that he'll retire.

A committee spokesman declined to comment on whether an investigation into the mortgage crisis would include looks at Dodd, Conrad, or Countrywide's scandalous program of special mortgage deals for influential people.

But Issa has raised Hell about Countrywide's so-called VIP loan program before. During the last Congress, he went back and forth with Chairman Ed Towns over whether (and how forcefully) the committee should investigate.

Towns himself had received a loan from Countrywide, thought he denied receiving any preferential treatment, which supplied some tension as Issa pressed for subpoenas and Towns pushed hearings back.

Since Democrats controlled Congress when the Countrywide scandal broke in 2008, and have controlled it since, the VIP loans haven't received the level of partisan scrutiny to which they could now be exposed.

One congressional staffer I talked to expected Issa will have his hands full investigating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and that his interest in Dodd, Conrad, and Countrywide will likely take a backseat. So it may be unlikely that Issa will turn his investigative resources (which are twice as great, by the way, as the resources afforded to committee Democrats) toward Countrywide's loan program and the Democrats who benefited from it.

Issa is expected to look at things that will make Democrats uncomfortable. He's interested in stimulus money, for instance, and it won't sit too well with the White House if he subpoenas documents about stimulus disbursement. As he pursues his oversight agenda, there's sure to be a lot of grumbling by Democrats who don't like what he's looking into and see his questions and requests as overly burdensome on the administration.

As he takes his first steps, however, it's possible that Issa's chosen topic will mean an investigation that doesn't just make Democrats uncomfortable, but offends them and sours the partisan climate even further than it has been in the last months and years.