WASHINGTON — An Arab-American lawmaker, already US President Barack Obama's chief antagonist in Congress, is in line to take over the main investigative committee in the House of Representatives if as expected Republicans win a majority in next month's elections.
As chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa will control the committee's queries into operations at the White House and its tentacles throughout the federal bureaucracy.
Liberal Democratic Sen. Al Franken predicts that Issa will use the subpoena power of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to conduct a "witch hunt in an effort to bring down the Obama administration."
Issa already is the bearer of daily anti-Obama sound bites on cable TV. During a 10-day period in July, for example, his schedule showed 14 written statements and 11 television appearances.
The 56-year-old lawmaker from the San Diego area of southern California is among the wealthiest members of Congress. His annual financial report shows holdings worth a minimum of $161 million, but he probably is worth more since only ranges of assets are listed.
He is generous with his money. He asks staff members to identify their charities so he can contribute, and he raises money for military families at Camp Pendleton, a huge US Marine base in his district, and the local Boys and Girls Clubs.
Much of his wealth comes from his invention of the Viper car security system, which has sold more than 35 million units. When someone nears a Viper-equipped car or truck, it is Issa's booming voice that warns "Protected by Viper. Stand back." If the potential intruder fails to do it, Viper sounds six changing siren tones.
Issa is a computer expert with a hankering to fix breakdowns. His congressional staff will not tell him about technical troubles for fear he will become too involved and blow through scheduled meetings.
His criticisms of Obama focus, in part, on spending programs designed to help some individuals with mortgage payments, policies involving financial bailouts of businesses, preservation of White House records, correspondence with lobbyists and the president's political appointees to a financial stimulus panel.
A sign in his office, presented by his staff, says, "The corruption stops here."
Issa is in the habit of wielding whatever political power he can muster. In 2003, already in Congress, he spent nearly $2 million of his money on the successful recall of Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis. He vaulted over eight Republicans to become his party's senior member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"I still have a tendency to say, 'If not me, who? If not now, when?'" Issa said in an interview. "Do you seize opportunities when they come? Yes."
It is hard to imagine the tall, immaculately groomed conservative with his expensive suits, driving a hand-painted, Volkswagen bus-truck combo as a young man. Yet, there it is, with its peace signs, as the background on Issa's office computer.
As a teenager of Lebanese Christian descent, Issa grew up in a Jewish neighborhood near Cleveland delivering Kosher chickens for an orthodox rabbi who sold them as a business. The juice would leak into his station wagon. "I never closed the windows," he said.
Twice, in 1972 and eight years later, Issa and his brother were indicted on felony car theft charges. In each instance, the charges were dropped.
"We rode cars my brother 'borrowed,'" Issa said, making it clear who he thought was at fault. Ironically, one of Issa's first products in the car alarm business was a key pad that required a code to start the engine.
After leaving the Army in 1972, Issa pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for carrying a semiautomatic pistol and bullets. He was fined and got three months' probation.
He met his wife, Kathy, when she locked herself out of her apartment on a Sunday night. Issa, then a neighbor, climbed to her second-floor balcony and broke in.
"It's just been one adventure after the other ever since," she said.
The warehouse of his first business, in Cleveland, had a fire, which
destroyed an inventory of bug zappers. "We were insured but devastated,"
Issa said. "But we were not down."
Opportunity beckoned when car
thefts were soaring. The Issas started manufacturing their car alarms
as a small business in Vista, California. They became multimillionaires
before selling the business a decade ago.
Glenn Busse, senior
vice president for sales at Issa's former company, Directed Electronics,
said his old boss continues to come around, usually with a Diet Pepsi
in his hand. Still a director of the company, Issa is constantly
challenging ideas or pushing new directions for a product, Busse said.
"He's like a machine gun. 'What's going to happen with this? What about that?'" Busse said.
Neugebauer, Issa's chief of staff since his election in 1990, recalls
going to Issa's business office in 1998 when the congressman was in the
midst of a losing campaign for the Senate.
"He was sitting there
with a giant pile of boxes of counterfeit car alarms, counterfeits of
his product," Neugebauer said. "He had a cordless drill, and he was
opening each one to see where the parts were made."
few others in Congress, Issa knows how to deliver a sound bite on TV
that gets right to the point. Every issue is an opportunity to react.
Any new administration comment about Obama's stimulus program, for example, triggers new Issa charges of wasteful spending.
says he is only following the policies of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman,
a fellow Californian who made a name for himself as the hard-hitting
senior minority member of the investigating committee and later its
chairman during George W. Bush's presidency.
Waxman, who needled the Bush administration endlessly, cringes at suggestions that Issa is just like him.
are not the kinds of things I did in the minority or majority," Waxman
said of Issa's badgering of Obama. "He's raised questions of presumed
scandal which are all political."
Waxman said the subpoena power
that Issa would inherit if he should become chairman can easily be
abused. "Subpoenas ought to be very, very rare," he said. "It's a
Issa, unaware of Waxman's comments, made a similar point.
is not Dirty Harry," Issa said, referring to Clint Eastwood's movie cop
who takes the law into his own hands. "You have to know your limits."