For months, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has basked in the glory as the chairman with the oversight power to conduct wide-ranging investigations and issue subpoenas. But federal agencies have learned in recent weeks that the chairman who can impose real pain is Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the aw-shucks head of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
In just the first six weeks, Upton’s hearings and investigations have been relentless and wide ranging. For starters, they have pursued the more than 900 waivers that the Health and Human Services Department has issued under the new health care law, the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, the Federal Communications Commission’s judgment in issuing net neutrality rules on Internet access and billions of dollars in allegedly wasteful economic-stimulus spending.
And they have only begun.
Upton this week is turning his attention to the high costs and other “burdens” that Medicaid and the new health care law impose on the states, with a hearing Tuesday that will feature three governors and an oversight session Wednesday of alleged waste and other abuse in health care programs. On Thursday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is slated to testify in what looms as a testy confrontation.
“Oversight is a very important part of our committee’s agenda,” Upton told POLITICO. “We want to get to the facts.” He rejected suggestions that he has been tough on the Obama administration. “We are doing what we said we would do. … We are not going to allow EPA regulations that would send jobs overseas.”
Upton also has a powerful edge on Issa’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee — Energy and Commerce has the legislative power to fix the problems that it has identified.
“The goal of effective oversight is to identify problems, conduct a thorough investigation and see how those problems can be solved — whether that is with legislation, or by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, or by rooting out criminal activity, which can then be referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution,” said Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee chief counsel Todd Harrison.
On the new health reform law, the committee joined January’s unanimous GOP backing of the House repeal vote before launching its detailed review of the law’s enforcement. During a Feb. 16 hearing, Republicans got HHS officials to acknowledge that they had issued at least 915 waivers from the law’s mandates.
Upton’s colleagues and aides objected not so much to granting the exemptions but to the apparent impracticality of the vast new program and the difficulty of fixing it. “We can increase public awareness, which can shift public opinion,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who chairs the oversight and investigations subcommittee that unearthed the waivers. “We will have a free flow of information so that even Democrats agree that there is a problem.”
With energy and environmental regulation, Upton’s crew is badgering Obama administration officials with questions and challenges to planned regulatory action, and it has initiated legislation to pre-empt expected EPA controls of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
“We fought tooth and nail for two years against a cap-and-trade system,” Upton said. With Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), he has unveiled a draft-discussion measure, which they say is designed to clarify that the Clean Air Act was never intended to be used to impose cap and trade by regulation. Upton said he is looking for Democratic supporters of his proposal and tentatively plans House action later this year after the committee has made a full review.
And the clock is running on a resolution filed by Upton with Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — with Senate GOP counterparts — that will trigger House and Senate votes under the Congressional Review Act to override the recent FCC action on Internet-related rules.
At a Feb. 16 hearing, Upton accused FCC commissioners of a “power grab” that undermined congressional authority. “More than 300 House members asked the FCC not to act,” he said in the subsequent interview. Without elaboration, he speculated that President Barack Obama might not veto congressional objection to the new regulations.
Upton, like other House Republicans, recognizes the limits in enacting new laws during the next two years. Even if the Democratic-controlled Senate goes along, it’s unlikely that either chamber would have a two-thirds vote to override Obama’s veto. “I am not too interested in moving a bill if it can’t go all the way. I try to be bipartisan,” he said.
Although Upton has revealed a heightened partisanship in his early weeks as chairman that has surprised longtime observers, he has also moved to reach out to committee Democrats. He has been especially close to his home state’s longtime former Energy and Commerce chairman, John Dingell (D-Mich.), whose independence often infuriated other Democrats — including party leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who quietly backed the 2006 move by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to unseat Dingell.
With Stearns, Upton has also reached out to Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee.
Even though she stressed her disagreement with the Republicans’ policy views, she said she wants to cooperate with their investigations. “They are trying to act in good faith.”
DeGette also made a stinging contrast to reports of Issa’s investigative plans. “If you are going to do a real investigation instead of a witch hunt, you need the knowledge that our committee has,” she said. “We have a stable group of members at Energy and Commerce who have worked together on many issues. … The Oversight Committee doesn’t have that.”
But Waxman — who also has been fierce in running investigations — called GOP attacks on climate-change policies “reckless and at odds with the overwhelmingly scientific consensus.” In an exchange of letters early this month, Waxman attacked Upton for his excessive requests to HHS on the new health law. “In the absence of any misconduct, asking for this much information … appears to be either another fishing expedition or an attempt to bog down the agency with excessive document requests.”
Upton shot back that he had issued nearly identical requests to those Waxman made as chairman. He also criticized Waxman’s failure to conduct a single hearing on the effects of the new health law or its implementation.
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