Members of the Obama administration, say hello to your new Republican interrogator, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
The House GOP on Tuesday evening named Chaffetz, a baby-faced 47-year-old finishing just his third term in Congress, to replace Darrell Issa as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Like many who have held the watchdog post before him, the confrontational Issa used his gavel, and the subpoena power that came with it, to chase scandals and rise to national prominence. His probes into the Justice Department's Fast and Furious operation, the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, and the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi gave headaches to the administration and help to drag down the president's approval rating.
But by the end of Issa's four-year tenure, his partisan antics were just as likely to draw eye rolls as applause from House Republicans, who believed the chairman's style often brought more negative attention to himself than to the substance of his hearings. He once prompted outrage from Democrats after turning off the microphone of their most senior committee member at a hearing, and Speaker John Boehner's decision to reverse himself and appoint a select committee on Benghazi was seen as a move designed, in part, to take the matter out of Issa's purview.
Facing three other GOP competitors, Chaffetz campaigned as someone who would run the committee differently, working more collaboratively with Democrats and keeping the focus where it belongs: on oversight. “I have the greatest respect and admiration for Congressman Issa, but I don’t intend to be Darrell Issa-like,” Chaffetz told The Hill earlier in the fall. “How you do things matters in this body, and how we do things would be a bit different.”
Where Issa had clashed repeatedly with his Democratic counterpart, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Chaffetz made a point of conducting a "district swap" with Cummings during the August recess, in which each member traveled to the other's constituency. On Tuesday, he won out over two Republicans pledging a more combative approach, Jim Jordan of Ohio and John Mica of Florida, as well as another Ohioan, Michael Turner, who ran a similar, change-oriented campaign.
Democrats say they are cautiously optimistic that Chaffetz will be a better chairman than Issa. "I am encouraged that Rep. Chaffetz has shown a sincere interest in working together and focusing on reform, and I hope this bipartisanship continues," Cummings said in a statement on Tuesday. Whether by design or happenstance, Chaffetz's current focus in on the breaches at the Secret Service, a scandal less fraught with partisan underpinnings than many of the committee's other inquiries. Yet Democrats aren't exactly getting their hopes up, and with good reason. Though he worked for Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign while in college at BYU (there was a family connection), Chaffetz is a committed and ambitious conservative who represents one of the most Republican districts in the country. As a top early backer of Mitt Romney, he has long been a staunch Obama critic, and after a decisive Republican win on Election Day, the appetite among House conservatives for taking on the administration is as strong as ever.
While most everything in Congress these days is driven by the ideological divide, the House oversight committee is now perhaps the most inherently partisan panel, particularly when it is run by a majority party in opposition to the White House. That was true when Democrat Henry Waxman went after President George W. Bush's administration, and it was true when Republicans clashed with Bill Clinton in the 1990s. That Democrats will complain about Chaffetz at some point is a given. The test of his tenure, then, will not just be how much blood he draws from the administration, but how much his inevitable critics draw from him.