WASHINGTON -- The much-hyped confrontation between the Obama White House and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) over a possible executive order requiring donor transparency from federal contractors ended up being an exercise in stonewalling.
On Thursday, Daniel Gordon, the administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget, was brought before the oversight committee to answer questions about the controversial draft order. Even before he arrived, however, the afternoon seemed destined to fall far short of political fireworks.
At the White House briefing several hours prior to the hearing, Press Secretary Jay Carney declined, yet again, to answer questions about potential policy, which according to an earlier version, would require government contractors to disclose campaign contributions made by directors, officers, affiliates or subsidiaries to federal candidates, political party committees and “third party entities."
“I don’t have anything more to add to the specifics of that,” said Carney. “I would simply say, disclosure is a good thing. I’m not sure when it became a bad idea. Disclosure used to be something that Republicans supported very much, and I think the American people support it a great deal. So, the specifics of this executive order, I do not have.”
If Carney's goal was to be evasive on the details, the whole administration apparently got the same memo. Over the course of roughly two hours, during his testimony and the question and answer session that followed, Gordon did the same delicate dance: arguing that transparency was good for the contracting process while steadfastly refusing to say anything of substance on an executive order.
“I cannot speak to the draft of the executive order at this point,” he said on several occasions. “I simply am not comfortable doing that.”
The rhetorical caginess was evident throughout. Pressed by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) as to whether the executive order was being “narrowly tailored to serve a government issue,” Gordon replied: “There is no executive order, there is only a draft.”
“The draft,” Walberg clarified, hoping to wring out even a minor detail.
Gordon noted that the words “narrowly tailored” sounded like constitutional language and he did not “feel comfortable using constitutional language.”
Walberg was left less than pleased.
Later, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) tried his hand. “Do you support that draft executive order or not,” the freshman Republican asked.
“I’m not in a position to express an opinion about the draft,” replied Gordon.
“Well,” said West, “I don’t understand why you are here.” He wasn't alone.
Issa, the tip of the GOP’s oversight spear, fruitlessly tried his hand as well, pressing Gordon on several fronts including whether and why unions were exempt from the language requiring donor disclosure. “We can only deal with what fortuitously became available to us,” he said of the leaked copy of the executive order. “It exempts unions… we clearly saw that as a deliberate effort, and if it is draft legislation, how would you feel about exempting anybody who is a contractor of the government?”
Gordon was coy once more, though he noted that he was unaware of “situations” where unions actually held a federal contract.
Stonewalling is almost always the defining feature of oversight hearings, certainly when the two political parties are on opposing sides of the interrogation table. But Thursday’s affair had been billed as a potentially juicy confrontation between Issa and the White House -- much more so than those that have occurred the half dozen other times that OMB officials have sat before the oversight committee since the beginning of this year. The administration had initially refused to send OMB Chair Jack Lew to testify, even under threat of subpoena, before agreeing with the congressman to send Gordon instead.
Yet signs were clearly there, for anyone to see, that the event would be less dramatic than anticipated. Last week, the administration sent a letter saying it could not and would not talk about the executive order, only general procurement policy. And in the lead up to Thursday’s proceedings, aides were adamant that internal deliberations within the executive branch would remain confidential.
“Does it bother you,” asked Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), “that you are citing confidentiality even for a executive order to promote transparency?”
“It does not sir,” said Gordon. “I think there are discussions even about transparency… that we need to be able to have quietly and behind closed doors.”