Oversight Chairman Race: Mike Turner Runs As Reformer In More Than One Sense
Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) wants to bring “reform” back to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“I think the committee has somewhat atrophied on its core mission of government reform,” he said in an interview in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building. “This is the committee that has that power and authority to be able to pursue it and make recommendations to other committees as to real changes that can plug the hole,” he added.
Turner is running to be chairman of the oversight panel against Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and John Mica (R-FL).
For several reasons, the position will be one of the most important positions in the GOP during the last two years of President Obama's term. Obama's popularity is fleeting and GOP investigators are catching up to his administration's misdeeds. During the next Congress, both parties will be gearing up for a presidential campaign in 2016, creating a highly charged environment for congressional oversight.
Breitbart News interviewed all three candidates last week. This is the first article in a series that reviews their candidacies for the position, which will be decided by a secretive panel of about 25 senior House Republicans called the Steering Committee.
Turner is a serious, even intense man, and his background as a lawyer helps him strictly control the discussion when he grills administration witnesses.
At a hearing last week with the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen, Turner lit into the witness, telling him straight to his face he didn't have integrity.
But don't mistake Turner for a bomb thrower. He stays under control, and touts his ability to work with the Democrats on the committee, noting that Dayton, Ohio, his home city for which he served as mayor for eight years, is 9 percent Republican.
Of the three main candidates to be the next chairman – former Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) is also mentioned as a dark horse but hasn't entered the race – Turner came the closest to publicly criticizing the current chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who has been polarizing and prone to missteps.
“There always is concern that a committee of this portfolio might chase whatever shiny object is in front of it and lose sight of whatever its goal or objective is,” he noted, without mentioning Issa by name.
One of the chief obstacles to presiding over the committee is its top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who was appointed by top congressional Democrats to help obstruct Issa's investigations and has been fairly brilliant in doing so. In particular, Cummings has managed to engage Issa in a number of heated, on-camera debates in the committee that led to bad press.
Turner says his philosophy, learned from his years as mayor, is “don't take the bait.”
“If one member decides to go off, they should be judged by what they say and what they do in that time that they have. But if the committee is judged in how it degrades into bickering and battling,” he said.
Chaffetz is described as the front-runner in the race and as lobbying the crucial Steering Committee members more vigorously than Turner, who announced his entrance two weeks ago. But a major wild card in the race is Speaker John Boehner, who has five votes on the committee instead of the one that most of its members carry. In certain circumstances, a strong push from Boehner can carry far more weight than even his five votes, although some committee chairmen – including Mica – have overcome his opposition in the past.
Ideologically, Turner is generally to the left of Chaffetz. He's one of a few members both in the conservative Republican Study Committee and the moderate Tuesday Group. His tenure in Congress has been marked by hawkish conservative stances on foreign policy issues, and he's also very conservative on social issues.
His father worked for General Motors for 40 years, and Turner voted for the “cash for clunkers” bill that became controversial. Turner voted against the Wall Street bailouts (the “Troubled Asset Recovery Program”) in 2008.
Turner's political prowess should not be counted out in the race. Besides winning two terms in highly-Democratic Dayton, he has trounced Democratic opponents in his reelection races despite that the district was previously held by a Democrat.
And in 2011, during redistricting, former-Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) opted for retirement rather than face Turner head-to-head into the district both were drawn into.
Turner is more senior than Chaffetz on the committee, having served on it for 12 years, who took office in 2009. But he has not always played an extremely active role in its hearings. For example, Turner did not attend a September 2013 hearing with Attorney General Eric Holder as a witness. He also missed a hearing in October 2013 about a senior EPA official that lied about working for the CIA and a Benghazi hearing that year with key witnesses.
Turner has seized on a series of embarrassing conference expenditures for political hay. In a recent hearing, he raised up a “swag bag” given to participants at an IRS conference at a cost of over $60,000. The bag included a squirting fish toy, which Turner grilled an IRS official about to great effect, asking, “could you please tell me, what were these items for, and why would people get a plastic squirting fish?”
“I honestly have no idea what the plastic squirting fish was for,” the dumbfounded witness responded.
In our interview, Turner often turned back to the idea of focusing the oversight panel back on its mission of reforming government, rather than just spotlighting scandals.
“It's not just an issue of, 'I gotcha' and you violated the law, it's also an issue of how do we make certain it's doing the best job possible,” he said, adding that working on reform could help to provide additional legitimacy to its investigations.
“Every member has three or four really great ideas as to how government should be reformed and they have no place to go take those. This is the investigative committee that can go look to hold agencies and the bureaucracy accountable to those issues,” he added.