Some consider it the most powerful investigative committee in Congress: the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It has nearly unlimited purview to look into most any matter that has a tie to government.
In the past, that’s meant investigating everything from steroids in sports to the housing crisis. I recently spoke to the current Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz: “The Oversight Man” who’s watchdogging government under Donald Trump’s presidency.
The following is the transcript of our interview:
Attkisson: There’s no better way to understand the business of the House Oversight Committee than to see it in action.
Rep. Chaffetz: Who at the Department of Homeland Security office is holding you back?
Huban Gowadia: So I have to work with the Office of General Counsel.
Rep. Chaffetz: Give me some names. I want to know who to call up here.
Attkisson: Republican Jason Chaffetz is in the chairman’s seat and can usually found taking names or at least trying. Today, he’s grilling a TSA official about why the agency is stonewalling investigations into retaliation against whistleblowers.
Rep. Chaffetz: Tell me the attorneys that are telling you not to provide this information to Congress, tell me the names of the attorneys that are telling you not to provide this to the OSC. I want names.
Huban Gowadia: I will follow up with you.
Rep. Chaffetz: No. I want you right now, you’ve had notice of this hearing. I need specific names. You got staff sitting there, how many staff with the TSA? One, two three, four, five, six, seven. One of these seven people has got to get on the phone, get your butt up out of this committee, and go get that information before this hearing’s done.
Rep. Chaffetz: I think one of the, the big things you have to do as the chairman every day, almost every hour, you have to make decisions about what to investigate, what not to investigate. We get about 15 whistleblowers a day. You have to vet those and figure out what’s real and what’s not real.
Attkisson: What are some of the most famous or infamous instances of investigations this committee’s done over many years?
Rep. Chaffetz: When we have the FBI director, Mr. Comey, come and talk about what was going on and not going on with Hillary Clinton, that was certainly a big, big moment, and nation was captured to it.
James Comey: If I don’t see the evidence in that case that she was acting with criminal intent in her engagement with her lawyers.
Rep. Chaffetz: And I guess like I read criminal intent as the idea that you allow somebody without a security clearance access to classified information. Everybody knows that director. Everybody knows that.
Attkisson: How do you describe for people who don’t pay that much attention to Congress what the job of the Oversight Committee is?
Rep. Chaffetz: Oversight was founded in 1814, its role and responsibility is to look over every government expenditure there is. Abraham Lincoln actually sat on this committee in the two years that he served in the United States Congress.
Committee video: He was concerned that the president wasn’t telling the truth, and so he set off on this quest to find the truth.
Attkisson: More recently, the Oversight Committee issued more than 1,000 subpoenas involving alleged misconduct by the Clinton administration. It dug into Iraq War contract fraud under President George W. Bush. It’s probed the housing crisis, steroids in sports, and the IRS targeting of conservatives. And in 2012, it held an attorney general, Eric Holder, in contempt for the first time in history for withholding subpoenaed documents in the Fast and Furious gunwalking case.
Rep. Chaffetz: There is no one person in this country that’s above the law.
Attkisson: Some people accuse the committee, whether it’s being run by a Democrat or Republican at the time, of being political in nature, of in essence, going after whoever’s in the other party, or if the administration is in the opposite party.
Rep. Chaffetz: Our job is not to be a cheerleader for the president, and I think that’s over the long term one of the things we’ll be judged by is, did you call balls and strikes that are coming over the plate, to use a baseball metaphor, did you call the same on Democrats as you did on Republicans?
Attkisson: Now with President Donald Trump in the White House, that philosophy is already being put to the test. What issues has the Trump administration, if any, already put before you?
Rep. Chaffetz: Well we have five different things that we’re looking at as it relates to mishandling classified information. General Flynn going to Russia, taking money for a speech. The president in Mar-a-Lago, I’m glad he likes it there, I want him to enjoy life and get out and away from the White House from time to time but you still have to deal with classified information in a moment’s notice, and you have questions about how he is handling that. Another thing that we have done is when Kellyanne Conway went on national television and touted Ivanka Trump’s brand.
Kellyanne Conway: It’s a wonderful line, I own some of it, a free commercial, go buy it today, everybody, you can find it online.
Rep. Chaffetz: As an executive branch employee you can’t do that. At any level of government. You can’t endorse or support or use the bully pulpit or the assets of certainly the White House or any department or agency.
Attkisson: Chaffetz and the committee’s lead Democrat, Elijah Cummings, signed a letter asking the Office of Government Ethics to recommend possible disciplinary action.
Rep. Chaffetz: You have to call it out and refer to it what it is, which is wrong, wrong, wrong. And she can’t do that again.
Attkisson: What about the hottest topic in the media, the question of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election?
Attkisson: What is your understanding of the evidence as you know it?
Rep. Chaffetz: Well we rely heavily on Devin Nunes as the chairman of the intel committee, as well as Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat. You can’t just rely on The New York Times, but even The New York Times said there was no direct evidence that tied any of this together. So, let’s be vigilant, let’s understand that some of these bigger nation states; they’re not necessarily our friends, they’re not trying to do us a favor. The Russians, the Chinese, others are constantly trying to probe us, trying to affect our nation, they’re constantly spying on us. This is not breaking news. How you deal with it is interesting. So, to suggest that this was somehow Donald Trump’s fault or problem, it really does kind of mystify me.
Attkisson: How do you explain when you watch TV news and you see politicians talk about it, it seems like everything’s about Russia, almost disproportionately so?
Rep. Chaffetz: Where were they when Mitt Romney said that our biggest geopolitical threat was Russia and Barack Obama mocked him? Where were they at that point? And where were they when Barack Obama, as the president, stood up and said, even if you wanted to affect the election, you couldn’t.
President Obama: There is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America’s elections. I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.
Attkisson: But Russia and the election is one topic the Oversight Committee doesn’t plan to tackle under Chaffetz. He says that’s being done by the House Intelligence Committee, which has the necessary clearance to look into classified matters. A recent hearing got heated when Democrat Stephen Lynch argued the Oversight Committee should be investigating, too.
Rep. Lynch: They hacked the American election. That is their …
Rep. Chaffetz: There’s no evidence of that and President Obama said that that wasn’t even possible.
Rep. Lynch: This is high confidence, this is our own FBI! High confidence that they hacked the election. They interfered with our elections and if we’re turning a blind eye to that that’s a shame. That’s a shame. That corner of our democracy and we’re just gonna say, ‘Oh, that’s somebody else’s work.’ That’s not anybody else’s work. That’s our work.
Attkisson: Chaffetz says the committee is also taking a pass at voter fraud allegations from President Trump.
President Trump: We also need to keep the ballot box safe from illegal voting.
Rep. Chaffetz: I don’t see any evidence of that, so I didn’t pursue that investigation even though the president of the United States was saying there’s evidence. I haven’t seen any.
Attkisson: Sometimes the leader of this committee in particular becomes a target of whoever’s in the other party, or whoever is feeling attacked. Has that happened to you, or do you expect that to happen?
Rep. Chaffetz: It happens on a daily basis.
Attkisson: How do you handle it?
Rep. Chaffetz: Just let it fly right past. No matter what issue, I can say that the sun is going to rise tomorrow and people on either side of the parties will disagree about that. You could say that that flower is beautiful, and you still get disagreements. That’s just the nature of it and you don’t take it personally. Remember that you’ve got a wife and kids that love you and that’s what’s really important). (For more from the author of “Meet ‘the Oversight Man’ in Congress” please click HERE)