California businessman Darrell Issa came to Washington DC in 2001. Now he joins the list of key Republicans in Congress calling it quits He's led many high profile investigations into corruption and fraud. Along the way, he says he's seen many changes - not for the better. For one, he says party politics and money interests increasingly dominate the agenda. And believe it or not, he's not just talking about Democrats. That's our cover story: Issa's exit interview about money, politics and the swamp.
Sharyl: Do you think party leaders exert too much control over members of Congress and over the agenda in a way that might be motivated by donations and corporate influence and special interests?
Rep. Issa: It happens every day that a lobbyist calls the majority leader, the minority leader, the speaker, and some chairmen or ranking member gets a call saying, "hey go light on that." That kind of influence goes on. Anyone that says it doesn't hasn't been in that position I'd been in.
But before we get to that, it helps to go back to 2011, when Darrell Issa had his most important job in Congress, heading the powerful House Oversight Committee. The first subpoena he issued was in the Countrywide loan investigation.
Sharyl: You led the oversight committee during some important investigations. Countrywide Financial, which had granted some prominent Democrats and Republicans what they called "sweetheart loans" as the industry was trying to avoid regulation ahead of the fiscal crisis. Issa's investigation revealed that federal public officials and their staffers, both Democrats and Republicans, had quietly received lucrative VIP loans from Countrywide as the company sought to influence their decisions.
Rep. Issa: It was much more effective than political giving. I'll never forget there was one staffer for Senator Bennett who got thirteen refinancings, each one a little lower, never paying one penny out of her pocket.
Republican Bob Bennett said he was unaware of the loans to his staff while he served on the Senate banking committee. Another big investigation: Fast and Furious, when the Department of Justice got caught secretly delivering thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartels. At the time, in 2011, the government denied it. But then, federal agent John Dodson stepped up.
John Dodson: I'm boots on the ground here in Phoenix tellin it we've been doing it every day since I've been here. Here I am. Tell me I didn't do the things that I did. Tell me you didn't order me to do the things that I did. Tell me it didn't happen. Now you have a name on it, you have a face to put with it. Here I am. Someone now, tell me it didn't happen.
Sharyl: Fast and Furious: I interviewed really the chief whistleblower in that case, John Dodson, and your committee became interested in that case and really took off and ran with it.
Rep. Issa: Well, it was a political issue from the start. Democrats thought it was going to help get an assault weapons ban. The U.S. attorney who had actually supported and allowed this operation to go forward, very clearly wanted to let, in my opinion, wanted to let weapons go to Mexico, follow it, prove it, and then use it as a justification for a U.S. assault weapons ban. Fast and Furious was very rewarding because we got the truth out.
But Issa says it's gotten more difficult to get the truth out because money and special interests increasingly dictate the Capitol Hill agenda.
Sharyl: It seems like there always a lot of retirements prior to elections that are not held during a presidential election year. But so many fairly big-name Republicans seem to be bowing out, when Republicans at the same time control the House the Senate and the White House, isn't that unusual? Because normally for a party, that is the time when you can control the committees and the agenda on Capitol Hill?
Issa: We really don't control the committees, more and more, it's controlled out of the speaker's office and out of the minority leader's office. You know, they pick who gets the committees and then they pick really what you get to do. That's one of the things that's changing.
And that's behind Issa's biggest bone of contention: in 2014, House Speaker John Boehner took the Benghazi probe away from Issa's committee and handed it to a specially-created committee with handpicked staff. Other lead Republicans had complained that Issa's digging into the Obama scandal was damaging relationships with the federal agencies under investigation, and the companies that support them, and donate to both political parties. Congressman Trey Gowdy, a popular former prosecutor and the Republicans' go-to for high profile investigations, was picked to lead the new Benghazi committee.
Rep. Issa: Leadership trusted him to do the Russian investigation, trusted him to do just what they wanted on the Benghazi investigation, and trusted him to be chairman of Oversight ahead of others who could have been.
Sharyl: What do you mean leadership "trusted him to do just what they wanted on the Benghazi investigation?"
Rep. Issa: Well, they took the Benghazi investigation away from me exactly at a time in which there was plenty more to say and do. And so, when they put it to a select committee, they took six months off before they called a single witness. It was a cooling off period that shouldn't have happened. Speaker Boehner made a decision to pull the plug, and then have nothing happened for six months, and then we spent millions of dollars really to reach a lesser conclusion than we would have if we just continued.
Congressman Gowdy's office told us: "At no point did Speaker Boehner, Speaker Ryan, or anyone in leadership ever suggest a committee action or outcome. All decisions made were made by the committee." But Issa saw the move to hand the Benghazi probe to a special committee as part of a Republican effort to control the investigation, and keep it from going too far.
Sharyl: A lot of people out there listening might say, why would the Republicans go easy on the Benghazi investigation that doesn't make any sense. Can you explain that?
Rep. Issa: The chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers at the time and the chairman of Armed Services Buck McKeon, they were covering up for those failures. They were feeling institutionally that that they had to protect them. And, by the way, both of them were going on to other careers shortly afterwards.
Sharyl: What did Congressman McKeon go on to do?
Rep. Issa: You know, Congressman McKeon Chairman McKeon is a lobbyist for defense companies today.
Rep. Issa: He's a very effective one.
McKeon wasn't available for comment. But Rogers, now a national security commentator for CNN, told us his intelligence committee conducted a tough, fair investigation on Benghazi and made definitive findings, rejecting outside pressure to fulfill preconceived notions. A spokesman for former Speaker Boehner told us he picked Gowdy to lead the Benghazi committee because he "wanted somebody reliable to handle the Benghazi investigation, and full access to information about intelligence sources and methods. The Speaker felt strongly that the American people deserved the truth, and it became evident that a select committee was necessary in order to ensure they got it." Whatever the case, multiple members and former members of Congress have told us the committees that conduct Congress' most important business are under routine pressure to shape their work.
Sharyl: I think people don't understand, and tell me if I'm wrong, that the committees are often forced to serve the interests of those they're supposed to regulate in some ways, because that's where they get their money from. I have seen the defense related committees that take money from defense contractors go easy on defense oversight.
Rep. Issa: There's no question at all. You know, I want to see the armed services our men and women in uniform protected. But mistakes happen, and when they happen, the cover ups that leadership committee chairmen sometimes order to protect the institution becomes a real problem. And that happens every day here.
Sharyl: Reflections on the Swamp? People say there's a swamp.
Rep. Issa: There is a swamp and the swamp reflects the pressures that come into Washington. There's no cure for the swamp except more and more transparency and transparency cannot be simply the left and the right bashing members. It's got to be transparency at all levels.
Sharyl: Reflections on President Trump?
Rep. Issa: you know, President Trump has all the right instincts to get all the right things done. And for those of us who sometimes wish he would say or do it another way it doesn't change the fact that his instincts are what America needs for the 21st century.
Sharyl: If you had a say in a sentence the reason you're leaving what would it be?
Rep. Issa: It's time.
At least 38 House Republicans have announced they're leaving their posts compared to 17 Democrats. Republican retirements include Trey Gowdy, who currently heads the House Oversight Committee.