San Diego Union-Tribune
July 22, 2001
Issa's eyes opened by Congress' complexity
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- For someone like Darrell Issa -- the self-made California millionaire who burst on the scene three years ago in pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat -- being a House member may seem like a consolation prize:
His office is cramped, he has no seniority and he is surrounded by people at
least as driven and commanding as he is. People mispronounce his name,
political realities trample his plans, and the chaotic nature of Congress keeps
him waiting for hours.
The man who once said business experience was all he needed for public
office may have good ideas about running government the way he ran his
car-alarm company. But after six months here, he also knows that the nation's capital has a thing or two to teach him.
"There's no question that once you get into office, you learn what you didn't
know," the Vista congressman said recently, as he tipped his head back to get the last drop from the Diet Coke bottle he takes everywhere. "While I still
think I would have been an effective senator, I have to admit I wouldn't have
been nearly as effective as somebody who had spent several years in a
Issa is the Viper car-alarm inventor who's worth millions, but when the
47-year-old Republican walks around this town, he carries himself like a
schoolboy who fears he'll miss class. He leans forward, his head and
shoulders jutting over his legs, his legs moving so fast that young assistants do
a little jog-walk to keep up. There are rivulets of sweat at his temples, and it's
as if Issa's feet cannot keep pace with his mind.
In the more than six months Issa has represented the heavily Republican
district from San Diego and Orange counties, he has shown observers that he
can prepare well for committee hearings and show deference to Capitol
leaders. People were impressed with how he helped pressure military bases in California to reduce energy consumption, and how he fought, though
unsuccessfully, to exempt California from having to add ethanol to much of its
"Because of the way he campaigned in the (1998) Senate race, a lot of
people expected him to come in and make bold statements, but not be
interested in the process," said a senior Republican staffer. "I think everyone
who's dealt with him has been surprised that he quickly learned the ways of
Much of what Issa's done is marked by the business savvy that helped him
turn a $7,000 investment into the hugely successful Directed Electronics Inc.,
which he no longer runs. On the Small Business Committee, Issa sympathized
with doctors burdened by Medicare paperwork. On the Judiciary Committee, he is one of the few who know what it's like when competitors steal intellectual property -- because some have swiped his Viper logo.
His votes have been predictably business-friendly: against government
regulation, for unfettered trade and in support of more oil and gas exploration.
"Because he didn't go through the city council or the county supervisors or the Assembly, it tends to make him more independent, and probably a little more creative," said Brad Smith, chief of staff to David Dreier, the Covina
congressman who leads California's Republican delegation.
Like any new lawmaker, Issa has found challenges in the seemingly routine --
finding the right hearing room, or making sure people pronounce his name
Issa is pronounced ICE-uh. Not IS-uh, as the chairman of the business
committee pronounced it. And not E-suh, as the chairman of the International
Relations Committee said it.
And the weekly meeting of California's Republican House members is in the
Capitol cafeteria, not in the Capitol broom closet that Issa has frequently
opened by mistake.
Ambition has peppered Issa's ideas and his conversations: A
Lebanese-American, he boldly proposed that Congress speed peace
negotiations by working on Lebanese-Israeli relations separately from those
of Israel's other neighbors. To the chairman of the business committee, he
recently joked that he could be chairman himself in six to eight years. Inviting
a guest into his congressional office, he good-naturedly remarked that "it's not
oval" -- as in the White House Oval Office.
"If there's something off-putting, it's (that he's) unctuous," said another senior
Republican staff member. "But I'd rather have an unctuous freshman than a
Unlike in business, Issa is learning that the successful on Capitol Hill aren't
always those with the best ideas and the most energy, but those with the
powerful committee seats and the reputations for getting along with
colleagues. On a recent Wednesday, Issa waited four hours before he could
testify on changes he wanted to make to a bill reforming politicians'
fund-raising practices. Not one of his ideas ended up in the legislation.
Barbara Sinclair, an expert on Congress at UCLA, said: "People who've been CEOs have a tendency to expect the world to adapt to them.
"So it is a sign both of a reasonable amount of intelligence and a certain
amount of flexibility to realize that this ain't the way it is -- that democratic
politics is frustrating."
How does political reality sit with a man who spent $2.2 million -- much of it
from his own pocket -- on his House campaign?
"It's frustrating to anyone to not get immediate gratification," Issa said, adding
that one big frustration is the time-consuming travel between Washington and
But then the new congressman grinned and made the sort of remark only a
business executive could: "You're not even in control of the airlines."