Rep. Darrell Issa
Rep. Darrell Issa Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Rep. Darrell Issa Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The summons to Capitol Hill didn’t bode well. It was May 2011, and Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown had been called to testify on the city’s fiscal stability before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s subcommittee on the District of Columbia. The short hearing advisory offered few clues to the panel’s aims, outside of one ominous paragraph.

“In 1995 the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act established a five member ‘Control Board’ to oversee financial matters,” the advisory read. “The Control Board was disbanded in 2001 when the District had achieved four consecutive balanced budgets and met other criteria. There are seven separate ‘triggers’ which would automatically revive the Control Board.”

The Financial Control Board represented the darkest period in the 40-year history of D.C. home rule, after mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly ran up huge budget deficits and the federal government stepped in to take control of District finances. D.C. was still struggling with high unemployment in 2011 as it emerged from the recession, but it had balanced its budget every year. Were congressional Republicans really contemplating another Control Board?

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton sent out an anxious press release calling the hearing “unprecedented in recent history.” She lamented that “the House Republican majority has spent more time focusing on the local affairs of the District than at any time since the 1973 Home Rule Act.”

As the hearing got underway, the committee leaders waived their opening statements, so Gray led off with a defense of the city’s finances. “I have had to make tough choices in submitting this budget, choices that, frankly, I wish I didn’t have to make,” Gray began humbly. “But the reality is that the financial health and backbone of our city could be imperiled unless thoughtful, balanced, and measured choices are made and honored.”

Brown, seated beside Gray, pledged that “we will rise to the challenge.”

Their supplications quickly proved unnecessary. After listening to city officials testify and respond to a few scattered questions from his colleagues, committee chairman Darrell Issa took control of the hearing and revealed what was really on his mind: budget autonomy for the District.

“I am going to be offering an alternative that I hope [Norton] will join with me on that provides a mechanism for a separate vote and separate consideration of the District’s funds,” Issa said, adding, “I’m looking for some sort of a structured mechanism to where this committee could say, ‘They have a plan, they can live without federal dollars and still meet the requirement,’ and each time that is received, it would allow us to say, ‘We have no reason to be in the way of your spending your dollars if you can make the commitment.’”

Everyone in the room was taken by surprise—including Issa’s aides, who had no idea their boss was going to propose the policy long sought by D.C. officials to free the city’s operations from the mercy of a fickle Congress.

“I was hugely surprised and ecstatic,” Gray recalls. “I’ve been in office now almost two years, and it was one of the moments that was absolutely wonderful for me, to see this man who’s obviously done a great job on the Hill, obviously highly respected—he didn’t have to get involved with the District of Columbia at all. He has chosen to do that, and he’s done it in a way that has supported the people of this city.”

“I about picked myself up off the floor,” says Norton. “No one thought this hearing would have that result.”

After all, Issa is a conservative Republican from California, a Tea Party favorite best known as his party’s official thorn in the side of the Obama administration. After the 2008 election, Issa lobbied hard for the top Republican spot on the Oversight Committee, pledging to fight “Barack Obama’s agenda of big government, trillions in new spending, and higher taxes.” When Republicans took the majority in 2011, Issa said he hoped to hold “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks,” on alleged government wrongdoing.

Issa hasn’t disappointed. His investigations have probed nearly every aspect of the administration’s work from birth control to Benghazi, with such impartial hearings as last February’s “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

It’s hard to imagine a less likely ally for a city that went 91 percent for Obama in November. But beginning with that May 2011 hearing, on issue after issue, Issa has demonstrated his interest in letting D.C. manage its own business, whether on budget autonomy, the Height Act, a commuter tax, special elections, or the city’s political scandals.

As he begins his final term as Oversight Committee chairman—he’s term-limited by Republican Party rules—and several of the city’s other key allies leave relevant committee chairmanships, Issa has become the District’s most powerful friend in Congress. So much so that some city officials feel that if any progress is to be made on certain autonomy issues, it’ll have to be in the next two years.

All of this has the District, historically skeptical of Congress and Republicans, wondering just what this unexpected ally can accomplish for the city—and where his love for the capital came from in the first place.

Room 2347 of the Rayburn House Office Building feels like the refuge of someone who very much does not want to be in the District of Columbia. The overhead lights shine through sky-blue panels with puffy white clouds, and the lobby walls are lined with photos of warm-weather icons from Issa’s Southern California district: a dangling avocado, a pier, a harbor, and the rolling waves of the Pacific. Accompanying those images is a big poster of that other emblem of California Republican nostalgia, Ronald Reagan, in the 1957 film Hellcats of the Navy, along with three photos of Nancy Reagan, two of which feature Issa at her side.

Issa’s path to congressional power was an unlikely one. Setting aside the standard biographical details—his Lebanese background, his Ohio upbringing, his stint in the Army, and his failed first marriage—we come to his two arrests for car theft and two more for illegal gun possession. (His only conviction was for possession of an unregistered firearm, for which he received a small fine and six months’ probation.) There’ve been some questions about more serious issues: A profile in the New Yorker detailed a very suspicious fire in his car alarm factory in 1982 shortly after he more than quadrupled his insurance policy and allegedly removed just about every item of value.

Issa denies all wrongdoing, and his past didn’t prevent him from winning a House seat in 2000, though reports of his arrests did help derail an earlier U.S. Senate campaign and a planned run for governor in 2003. Lacking upward political mobility in his overwhelmingly Democratic state, he’s made the most of his time in the House. Much of it has been at the expense of the Obama administration—and in the service of the District of Columbia.

“He wants to get something done when he sits as chair of a committee,” says Norton. “It’s more difficult to do that if your committee is Oversight, because what you do is you oversight, and you don’t have as many core jurisdictions. The core jurisdiction you have is the District of Columbia.”

It’s not a jurisdiction that holds much appeal for Republicans, particularly conservatives from outside the region. The committee offers few opportunities to legislate, so if Issa—a man who enjoys making headlines—wants attention for anything other than slamming the Obama administration, the District is his best bet. Though D.C., the city, might not interest a Californian with little experience in urban policy, Washington, the national capital, offers him a grander opportunity.

“Any member of Congress who opens the Constitution sees that the District of Columbia is named,” he says. “And it’s named for a reason, which is: We needed a place which was not a state but fulfilled a special role, not just in the U.S. but around the world.”

Rather than view oversight of the District as a chore, Issa sounds like he wants it in his portfolio. “The mayor was elected,” he says, slumped in an office chair with one leg propped on his desk. “The city council was elected. And I respect the fact that they’re the elected leaders. But as long as I’m the essentially appointed leader as chair of the committee, our committee has a direct responsibility.”

The 59-year-old Issa speaks patiently and deliberately, in fully formed sentences, as though he’s expressed these thoughts a thousand times before. He answers questions about policy in terms of philosophy, with issues like abortion and needle exchange becoming case studies for broader ideas about fairness, equality, and most of all, limited government. His arguments are driven by a healthy dose of Jeffersonian skepticism toward the federal government, in line with the American Revolutionary-cum-Tea Party mantra “don’t tread on me.”

“I think that’s sort of the major point of our committee, is to convince Republicans and Democrats here on the Hill that government does best at this level what it does least at this level,” Issa says.

For the Obama administration, that means constant hectoring on activities that Issa regards as an infringement on individual and states’ rights. But, paradoxically, for the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia, it means what the city has long sought: getting Congress off its back.

Ever since D.C. won home rule, Congress has seen to it that the city’s victory be as hollow as possible. In passing the 1973 Home Rule Act, representatives barred D.C. from taxing commuters or federal property, changing the 1910 Height Act, or altering the composition of D.C. courts; at the insistence of Kentucky Democrat William Natcher, Congress also retained veto over all city laws.

Natcher had made something of a career out of obstinacy, never missing a single roll-call vote and earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in the process. Unfortunately for the District, in 1961 he took his mulish attitude to the chairman’s seat of the House appropriations subcommittee in charge of D.C., which he considered “probably the most wicked city in the world.” His principal target was the planned Metro system, for which he refused to appropriate funds unless he got the D.C.-area freeways he wanted, delaying construction for years.

Worse still was Natcher’s fellow southern Democrat, John McMillan of South Carolina, who chaired the Committee on the District of Columbia nearly nonstop from 1945 to 1973. Accounts of the segregationist McMillan’s hostility toward the majority-black city vary, but the common denominator is watermelons: One story has him responding to appointed Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington’s first budget proposal by sending a truckload of watermelons to his office, while another has him handing Washington a watermelon and saying, “Here’s a letter from home.”

D.C.’s relationship with Congress improved after civil rights activists helped defeat McMillan in a 1972 primary. But it took another dive in the 1990s, hitting a new low in 1995, when Congress reasserted its authority by placing the District under the oversight of the Control Board.

“The city’s reputation on Capitol Hill was very low at that point,” recalls Alice Rivlin, who helped create the Control Board and chaired it from 1998 to 2001. “They weren’t managing things well. Marion Barry had embarrassed the city publicly, and much of Congress thought the city was just a poorly managed place. And there was some racism involved as well.” (Barry attributes any strain to Kelly’s budget mismanagement and a “natural built-in conflict between the city and the Congress because we don’t think they should be in our business.”)

Some Republicans saw the city’s woes as an opportunity to turn the District into a laboratory for conservative policies. Initially, new House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the charge, putting out a seven-page single-spaced manifesto on how to reform the city and declaring, “To the degree that Marion Barry can deliver the government to help you, fine. To the degree it gets in your way, wipe it out.” Gingrich appointed a task force to overhaul District policy, leaving local officials out in favor of Republican lawmakers who explored social engineering policies like cash payments to young Washingtonians who avoided out-of-wedlock births.

But meetings with city leaders and vocal opposition from D.C. residents soon convinced Gingrich that he couldn’t simply antagonize the District; he needed Barry to “create a bridge of trust between the poorest black neighborhoods and the outsiders who sincerely want to help.” Barry claimed that he and Gingrich had formed a “spiritual bond,” and Gingrich changed his tone, acknowledging that “we don’t need to be a second city council.” Despite protests from conservatives, Gingrich pulled back on some of the radical reforms and completed an unlikely transformation, if not into a true ally of the District, then at least into a cooperative partner.

D.C.’s detente with Congress was aided by a stabilizing fiscal and political situation in the city. Anthony Williams became mayor in 1999 after a successful stint as the city’s first chief financial officer, and the Control Board was suspended in 2001 after four consecutive balanced budgets. But perhaps most important for Williams’ reputation on the Hill was simply who he was not.

“The Republicans in Northern Virginia before me ran against the city, that was part of their mantra, their campaign narrative. I thought that our destinies were intertwined.”—Rep. Tom Davis Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“Tony Williams was refreshing because of who he followed,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the Government Reform Committee from 2003 to 2007 (he removed “Oversight” from the panel’s name). “Barry had very strained relations there for a lot of reasons.”

If there’s any ex-congressman who’s routinely given credit for elevating D.C.’s status on the Hill, it’s Davis. A moderate Republican from Vienna, Va., Davis took a consistent interest in the District as part of his constituents’ region.

“The Republicans in Northern Virginia before me ran against the city,” says Davis. “That was part of their mantra, their campaign narrative. I thought that our destinies were intertwined.”

In 2006, Davis introduced the District of Columbia Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act, which would have given D.C. a voting representative in the House. That bill didn’t make it out of committee, but a similar measure introduced by Norton and co-sponsored by Davis the following year, which also gave an extra representative to solidly Republican Utah, passed the House, though it fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to break a Senate filibuster. No voting rights legislation has passed the House since.

“Tom Davis really stuck his neck out,” says D.C. shadow senator Michael D. Brown, who advocates for autonomy and statehood on the Hill. “That was pretty gutsy legislation that he put out for the D.C. Voting Rights Act. We had a handful of supporters in his party, but not many.”

“You can sit on this committee and regard it as the booby prize, which of course it is,” says Norton with a chuckle. “When they made Tom the chair [of the District subcommittee] as a freshman—you can see that it wasn’t exactly a much sought-after committee. ‘So what do you bring home to your residents with the District of Columbia?’ It seems to me that it is more advantageous, and perhaps more risky at the same time, for members of this region. They know more about the District. They should have a vested interest in how the capital city marches alongside them. And then Darrell of course is from the opposite side of the world and becomes the chair.”

Davis calls Issa his “protege,” and he endorsed Issa to succeed him as the top Republican on the Oversight Committee ahead of more senior members. While they might not have much in common on the surface—Issa’s a conservative where Davis was a moderate, a Californian where Davis was a local, and Oversight chairman during a Democratic administration where Davis did little investigating of George W. Bush and could focus more on his D.C. portfolio—Issa insists that they share a philosophy when it comes to the District.

“I’ll never give up somebody putting conservative credentials on me as long as there’s an R after my name,” says Issa. “The strange thing is, if you score the difference, there are very few differences between Tom and myself, and especially on trying to make the federal city function for the government, but also function as a city.”

An official’s nomenclature when referring to the national capital can be revealing. For most city leaders, it’s “D.C.” or “the District.” For political commentators, it’s generally “Washington.” For Natcher, it was “our Capital City,” a possession of the nation and its elected leaders more than the city’s residents. Norton, for whatever reason, also often invokes “the capital city.”

“You can sit on [the oversight] committee and regard it as the booby prize, which of course it is. What do you bring home to your residents with the District of Columbia?” —Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Issa prefers the term “the federal city.” It’s an acknowledgement that the originally planned function of the city was as a home to the federal government, not to a resident population, and that the city that’s grown up around federal Washington is largely tied to the government.

“A major portion of the residents of the District of Columbia are just as hooked to Washington as a federal city as I am,” Issa says. “They’re lawyers or lobbyists, they’re all those sort of things.”

Unlike many members of Congress, Issa lives in the District proper with his wife when he’s not in California. But his connection with the many D.C. residents who aren’t lawyers or lobbyists may be limited. At times during his career, he’s been the wealthiest member of Congress. The Kalorama house he bought in 2000 cost him $1.2 million, according to city records, and was assessed last year at $2,443,400. He says he chose the neighborhood for its easy access to restaurants and amenities, though he notes, “We don’t take much advantage of it.” (He still has a leg up over former D.C. subcommittee chairman Trey Gowdy, who introduced himself at the May 2011 hearing, four months after he took office, as “somebody from South Carolina who hadn’t visited the District of Columbia since he was a kid in high school.”)

But Issa’s view of the “federal city,” distanced from the daily lives of most Washingtonians, may actually be to the District’s benefit. Rather than meddling in the lives of D.C. residents to prevent out-of-wedlock births, he looks at the city as a national capital, where his role “sandwiched somewhere between the mayor and the rest of the federal government” requires broader principles of governance. And in his case, his guiding principle as a constitutionalist is basic fairness. The District, he says, should be treated “no better and no worse” than any of the states.

“I always use needle exchange because there’s no federal entity that can touch any of the states’ decisions on needle exchange,” Issa says, referring to the longtime federal ban on needle exchange programs in D.C. “It’s not a federal issue. But in the District it becomes a federal issue. And to change what’s going on for 318 million Americans for 600,000 Americans makes no sense.”

Issa-style fairness can cut the other way, though; he opposes the gun laws the city’s leaders have passed. “I’ll use the opposite example, that the [Supreme Court] decided, we didn’t decide, and that’s the Second Amendment,” he continues. “You know, the District is no different from the rest of the United States relative to the Second Amendment, no better and no worse, and the Court held that. But I think that’s the two sides of it: You’re not any better but you’re also not any worse.”

While D.C. residents may not agree with every policy he espouses, the basic live-and-let-live approach is what city leaders have sought for decades, and it’s what’s allowed Issa to become the most proactive Republican ally the city’s had—even more so than locals like Davis, who knew the region better and couldn’t divorce its particular needs from their governing philosophy.

Issa seems to relish the ability to play the hero. Unlike many members of Congress who rely on their staffs for just about everything, Issa is not “staff-driven,” say people familiar with his legislative style. His budget autonomy proposal may not have been met with such effusive praise from D.C. officials had there been any advance warning—but it was brewing in Issa’s mind alone, and even his staffers were taken by complete surprise. Likewise, the move to allow reconsideration of the 1910 Height Act came from Issa, according to Norton, who co-commissioned a National Capital Planning Commission study of the act with Issa in November.

And there’s a whole slew of smaller issues on which Issa’s handed authority over to the District. When his October 2011 bill requiring criminal background checks on certain city hires ran into D.C. Council opposition, he quickly reversed course and allowed the Council to handle the matter on its own. When city leaders clashed with the National Park Service over Occupy D.C. protests, Issa held a hearing in January 2012, told NPS representatives that “the District of Columbia is being burdened,” and helped persuade them to enforce a ban on campers in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. When redevelopment of the Southwest Waterfront required congressional approval, Issa helped shepherd a bill through the House. When laws on the books would have prevented the District from holding a special election on the same day as the regular primary election, Issa helped pass a fix that likely saved the city more than $300,000. And as one scandal after another plagued the D.C. government, Issa refrained from passing judgment, as he rarely does when it comes to the Obama administration.

But there’s one pesky matter on which Issa hasn’t been able to help: the ability of his Republican colleagues to tack riders and amendments onto pro-D.C. legislation, which budget autonomy would ease a bit—but only if Congress grants it. It was a gun rights amendment that scuttled Davis’ voting rights bill and an abortion rider that ultimately made Issa’s budget autonomy bill unpalatable to the city. On issues like the Southwest development and background checks, Republicans have allowed Issa to take the lead. But on bigger matters like autonomy, they’ve demonstrated no willingness to throw D.C. a bone without getting something in return.

Five months after Issa dropped the budget autonomy bombshell, Davis set up a meeting to help bring his successor’s ideas to fruition.

“I talked to Darrell and I talked to the mayor and I said, ‘You should get together,’” Davis says.

“The District is no different from the rest of the United States relative to the Second Amendment, no better and no worse. That’s the two sides of it: You’re not any better but you’re also not any worse.”—Rep. Darrell Issa Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Joining them at their Oct. 12, 2011, meeting was Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican from Missouri who chairs the D.C. budget subcommittee and a Bethesda native who’s prevented many of the amendments that have plagued the District under other chairmen. Emerson pledged to do all she could to keep riders off the D.C. budget bill. Issa kept up the effort by making a personal appeal to try to prevent an abortion rider.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who met with Issa several months ago, came away with the impression that Issa wanted a clean budget autonomy bill but simply couldn’t bring Congress in line.

“Congress is a problem,” Mendelson says. “They’re borderline dysfunctional. I don’t mean by that that I’m implicating Darrell Issa. I think he feels that some of this dysfunction is beyond anyone’s control. So he wants a clean bill, but he can’t make it happen.”

Issa acknowledges that he has little power to prevent riders, although he defends the abortion ban, since the federal government doesn’t fund abortions in the states, either. (Of course, that argument treats all D.C. spending as federal spending, something D.C. officials vigorously dispute.) But these squabbles over riders, he says, won’t occur so often in the future if he can bring D.C’s self-funded budget “out of Appropriations, symbolically out of Appropriations, and simply have the District present a budget, have that budget approved. Not appropriated, approved.”

Issa remains confident that D.C. will get the autonomy bill that will keep school openings and trash collection safe from the threat of a federal government shutdown.

“Absolutely,” Issa says. “I think we can get there and I think we’re going to have Republican support, including the most conservative Republicans.”

And will it happen in the next two years? “Absolutely,” Issa repeats. “Like every other chairman, you’d like to think that they’ll grant you a waiver and you’ll stay there and become an institution, but except for [longtime Rules Committee] Chairman David Dreier, most of us won’t get that. So I’m planning that I’ve got two years left.”

The lift is made heavier by the retirement of D.C. allies from other important committees. Emerson is stepping aside to become president of a trade association—Norton calls her departure “a terrible loss”—and will be replaced by conservative Florida Republican Ander Crenshaw, a member of the Tea Party Caucus whose stance toward the District is largely unknown. In the Senate, two of the city’s allies are leaving the top spots on the panel that has jurisdiction over D.C.—independent Joe Lieberman retired, and Republican Susan Collins is term-limited by GOP rules—and are expected to be replaced by the moderate Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware and the conservative Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Finally, Gowdy has taken the chairmanship of an immigration subcommittee. Rather than hand D.C. matters over to a replacement, Issa announced earlier this month that he’d elevate them to the full Oversight Committee, putting the ball in his court to make progress on D.C issues by the end of 2014.

That means a continued push for budget autonomy legislation. It means further investigation of Height Act changes, even before the NCPC study is complete. (“There’s a study that’s due back in September that’ll go through the whole federal bureaucracy, but since my tenure is limited,” Issa says with a chuckle, “we intend to hold a series of hearings that will call in basically the people who know: the city planners, the architects.”) And, if past is precedent, it probably means a host of other proposals that aren’t currently on anyone’s radar.

Issa seems to enjoy the shock value of pitching ideas no one sees coming. At the same July 2012 hearing in which he suggested reconsideration of the Height Act, he set Norton gushing with visible excitement when he told her, “I will make you one other pledge: Not only can we work together on the Height Act proposal, but … I think we should after the election start thinking about how we’re going to deal with the only place that doesn’t have the ability to tax people who earn their income in that place.” Here, out of the blue, was a proposal to consider a commuter tax, expressly forbidden in the Home Rule Charter.

Of course, an end to the financial vise of a commuter-tax ban remains a longshot, given that suburban D.C. delegations, generally the city’s strong allies, are unlikely to support a new tax on their constituents. Even Davis laughs at the question of whether he’d back a commuter tax.

“‘Course not!” says Issa’s mentor. “Sometimes you teach these people too well.”