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The New Yorker: Don't Look Back

Darrell Issa, the congressman about to make life more difficult for President Obama, has had some troubles of his own.

January 24, 2011- A few days before Christmas, the mood in Representative Darrell Issa’s office was jovial. Outside, the hallways were filled with the House’s equivalent of scalps: wooden pallets piled high with shrink-wrapped boxes belonging to defeated or retiring Democrats. Inside, some of Issa’s closest advisers sat around talking trash. Issa, a six-term California Republican, had recently been elected chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which, according to House rules, “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.” Now that he had been given the power to subpoena, investigate, and harass the Obama Administration, Issa was being described as a future leader of his party—and the man most likely to weaken the President before the 2012 election.

Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, was wedged into a chair before a semicircular desk. He turned to welcome Kurt Bardella, Issa’s spokesman. On a couch sat Jason Scism, the congressman’s longtime legislative director, who had recently left to become a lobbyist for Research in Motion, the manufacturer of the BlackBerry.

Bardella removed his suit jacket, picked up four darts, and started tossing them with near-perfect aim at a well-used board on the wall. “The thing we discovered with Jason is that he’s unable to play darts sober,” Neugebauer said. “Kurt is actually a phenomenal dart player, but Jason, once he gets about six beers in him, is also phenomenal. They call him Dead-Eye.”

The conversation turned to Issa’s feats of electrical and mechanical engineering. During a recent interview with the Times, Issa repaired a reporter’s old-fashioned microcassette recorder. Years ago, Neugebauer recalled, Issa fixed a malfunctioning sound board in the middle of a talk-show interview.

An inveterate gadget junkie who was once the chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, Issa often acts as the office’s I.T. manager. “If someone’s got a computer problem and he hears about it, he is, like, sitting down at your desk fixing it,” Neugebauer said. “That’s the one thing I always tell the staff: If your computer’s not working, do not tell him!”

Issa (pronounced “Ice-uh”) is fifty-seven years old and six feet tall, with a prominent nose and ink-black hair neatly parted on one side. He was giving a tour of his suite to two Republican congressmen and was in an adjoining room directing their attention to the ceiling. In each office, Issa has removed several ceiling tiles and replaced them with plastic panels depicting blue sky and wispy clouds, making you feel as if you were inside a Super Mario Bros. game. Next, he showed his visitors an alcove that had once been stuffed with filing cabinets. He told about a long-running battle he’d had with the Architect of the Capitol, who refused to allow him to remove the cabinets. Fed up with the bureaucracy, he simply instructed his staff to take them out, adding precious workspace. New members of Congress make pilgrimages to Issa’s office to see his modifications. He’s become something like the Martha Stewart of the Republican Party.

He pointed to a row of old filing cabinets hidden behind a curtain that he had not yet managed to take out. “Why?” one of the congressmen asked incredulously. Issa shook his head and began detailing a complicated clash involving sprinklers and a fire-code regulation.

The three men moved into Issa’s personal office, where Issa had chosen and arranged every piece of furniture and bit of décor. On one wall were sixteen framed patents under Issa’s name from his time as a car-alarm manufacturer, in the eighties and nineties. “Advanced embedded codehopping system having masterfixed code encryption,” one said. On the opposite wall, there was a silver-framed portrait of his paternal grandfather, who was born in Lebanon. Nearby hung an oil painting by the artist Andy Thomas depicting eight Republican Presidents sitting around a table playing poker. In another corner, a similar painting by the same artist showed eight Democrats. Issa pointed to the Presidents. “My committee’s job is to trust no Administration,” he said.

Next up was a glass case in which dozens of military coins were displayed, each bearing the insignia of a different unit of the armed forces. Issa pulled a coin out of a desk drawer, prompting one of the other congressmen to take a coin from his pocket. “Oh, very nice! Yours is bigger than mine!” Issa said. The three men laughed. “I don’t know why people think size doesn’t matter!”

Issa’s scheduler entered the room and broke up the fun. “We’re behind schedule, I’m sorry,” she announced. Issa called out after the departing congressmen, “You can have your office just like mine, but you can’t have my office!”

Darrell Edward Issa grew up outside Cleveland, the second of six children. “Cleveland’s a great place when you’re a kid,” he likes to joke. “You hardly ever get sunburned, without the sun shining.” His mother was a Mormon and his father, who was Eastern Orthodox, worked as a truck salesman. The big event of his youth was moving from a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in an ethnically Hungarian and Italian suburb to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Cleveland Heights. “You just can’t have eight people in one john,” he said. “I grew up working for a rabbi, in a Jewish Boy Scout group, in which the services were on Saturdays, going to bar mitzvahs galore, learning that gefilte fish ain’t all that good, and being immersed in that society and not really thinking of myself, defining myself, as an Arab. We defined ourselves as: ‘Hey, we’re like Danny Thomas, we’re Lebanese.’ ”