WASHINGTON — Everything in Washington must be viewed through a political prism. Separating policy from politics is futile because passing legislation requires compromise and cutting deals. Yet the myth persists that there is some clear line between what constitutes policy and what should be politics.
Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, suspects that David Simas, a White House aide who worked on implementing the Affordable Care Act and building the HealthCare.gov website crossed that mythical line and violated the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 to prevent federal employees from engaging in obvious partisan activities. It exempts the president, vice president, and certain high-level officials. The White House says this exemption covers Simas, rejecting a subpoena for him to testify before Chairman Issa’s committee.
Without Simas as a witness, Issa closed down Wednesday’s hearing early, without hearing testimony from two other witnesses who had been called. It’s not clear what Issa will do next, whether he will take the matter to court, or concede defeat now that the White House has put down its marker.
This is a clash between the executive and legislative branches. But unlike the truly historic clash over the Nixon-era Watergate tapes, settled by the Supreme Court, Issa’s subpoena looks a lot like election-year politics. He did not have the backing of the ranking Democrat on the committee to subpoena Simas, and he has issued so many subpoenas — 99 so far, more than all three of his predecessors combined — that he’s lost any credibility he might have had as a committee chair.
Opposing Obamacare was supposed to carry the Republicans to victory in November, putting the Senate chamber in their hands and solidifying their hold on Congress. That may still occur, but between now and November, Republicans want to remind people how much they hate the Affordable Care Act.
One way to accomplish that is to subpoena a top aide involved in its faulty introduction, and then, when the aide refuses to appear to testify, imply that he must have something to hide.
Instead of asking what this relatively unknown aide is hiding, the question should be asked the other way around. What is he protecting? That’s where the constitutional struggle lies, and the answer is that he is protecting the integrity and independence of the executive branch.
Thomas Jefferson was our first political president in the sense that his election accompanied the formation of political parties. Every president since has governed as the leader of the nation, and the leader of his party. There were abuses, and in the modern era, most notably with President Nixon and the White House group dubbed the “plumbers” because they were tasked with plugging unwanted leaks.
Among the wave of reforms ushered in after Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal was the formation under President Carter of the White House Office of Political Affairs.
It was an attempt to wall off political activity, and every president since has had such an office. Carter and later Obama disbanded the office at the start of their re-election campaigns, another nod to the mythical dividing line.
When Obama reconstituted his political affairs office after winning reelection, he gave it a new name, the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Under President Bush, the political office was jokingly referred to as “Strategery,” playing on the younger Bush’s penchant for mispronunciation.
If Chairman Issa has evidence that Simas or other aides overstepped and abused power, he should reveal it. Otherwise, acting shocked that politics is going on in a house of politics is like that scene in the classic 1942 movie, “Casablanca,” when Captain Renault feigns shock to find gambling in Rick’s Café.