OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM:

Tragedy tomorrow, comity tonight? Peace breaks out at first committee session

While it may not last long, comity returned to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday.

The panel's organizational meeting proved to be an unusually friendly one for a committee that was the focus of some of the most intense partisan battles of the 112th Congress.

It featured a free flow of compliments tossed back and forth between Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who displayed little warmth toward each other over the past two years during committee investigations into the Fast and Furious gun tracking debacle, the Department of Energy's controversial loan program and payments for birth control as part of the health care bill, just to name a few.

During Issa's probe of the loan program, for example, Cummings accused the chairman for everything from trying to intimidate DOE staffers to breaking committee rules by not conferring with Democrats before issuing his subpoenas (E&E Daily, Sept. 14, 2012).

Yesterday, Issa -- whom allies call a provocateur and foes call a partisan attack dog -- repeatedly referred to Cummings as his friend and partner. The chairman promised to hold weekly meetings with Cummings to talk about the committee's agenda and encouraged all his subcommittee chairmen to do the same with their respective Democratic ranking members.

And in the panel's subsequent hearing on federal information technology spending he even went out of his way to acknowledge that one of his own questions for a witness was brought to his attention by freshman Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

It was a far cry from the dark committee days of the 112th Congress, when Democratic members like Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia accused Issa of running a "Stalinist courtroom" (E&E Daily, March 21, 2012) and driving "a nail in the coffin of [the committee's] relevance" with his partisan hearings (E&ENews PM, Dec. 13, 2011).

For his part, Issa yesterday seemed to acknowledge that politics occasionally got in the way of the committee's work over the past two years.

In laying out his vision for the panel this Congress, Issa said he wants to focus on legislative items and oversight efforts that will allow members to "find targeted savings in the federal system that do not compromise the health and welfare of America or the legitimate pay and benefits of the federal workforce."

To do that, "we are going to have to work together in a way that we did not in the previous Congress," he said.

"It is my intention to work very, very hard on a bipartisan effort to find those areas in which both Republican and Democratic members can agree that we prioritize the search for legitimate savings in the federal workforce and the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse in government," he said.

The renewed commitment to bipartisanship was acknowledged yesterday by former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a political moderate who served as the panel's chairman during part of his time on Capitol Hill and who had returned yesterday to offer testimony about ways to improve federal information technology spending and management.

Davis took some time during his testimony to note that the panel's unanimous consent to approve the committee rules for the new Congress was a good sign because in the past, members have occasionally had trouble even agreeing on the rules for how to run the committee.

Cummings said he appreciated Issa's commitment to a new era of bipartisan cooperation on the panel and said he, too, regretted some of the partisan battles that took place in 2011 and 2012.

"During the last Congress, much of our committee's work seemed colored by politics, and perhaps that was inevitable," he said. "During this Congress, however, we have a new opportunity to reset our agenda and focus on actually improving the lives of those we serve."

Cummings pledged to work with Republicans on the committee to find areas where the two sides can collaborate and asked in return that Democrats be consulted on all committee actions.

"I have served as both a chairman and ranking member, and I understand that it is easy to simply ignore the minority," Cummings said. "Easy, but not always wise. Sometimes, we may be able to find common ground if we just have the chance to talk first."