When Chuck Grassley wants answers in Washington, he goes to the source.
Like the day in the 1980s when Grassley skipped the typical way a senator travels from Capitol Hill – chauffeured in a limousine or SUV – and instead personally drove his orange Chevy Chevette straight to the front door of the Pentagon.
Grassley had been asking the Defense Department about reports of overspending on $600 toilet seats, $750 hammers and $10 washers. Frustrated with evasiveness, he took matters into his own hands with a steering wheel.
He remembers it today with a chuckle.
“It was kind of a joke that a senator had an orange Chevette,” Grassley told The Gazette. “I drove it to the Pentagon, and they blocked me with trucks. I drove up on the sidewalk to get around it …Today you’d never get in like that, but we walked right by the security people. We just barged right in.”
Since 1975, the Iowa Republican has built much of his congressional career “barging in” on presidential administrations.
Yet this year seems different. Whether it’s election-year politics or not — and there are opinions on both sides — Grassley’s attacks on President Barack Obama’s Justice Department have reached a clear crescendo.
On June 28, a probe by the House of Representatives that Grassley had much to do with voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a first in U.S. history.
Last Monday, the Republican-ruled House launched a lawsuit to enforce a subpoena seeking documents on the Justice Department’s botched, so-called “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation along the U.S.-Mexico border — the source of Grassley’s headlines this year.
It was another notch in the belt for Grassley, but it was not the first time he has gone after the Justice Department. That would be October 1984, when as chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, he subpoenaed then-Attorney General William French Smith during an investigation into cost over-runs being billed to the U.S. Navy.
A member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1959 to 1974, then a U.S. representative of the state’s 3rd District from 1975 to 1981, Grassley has been a U.S. senator ever since. His 31-year seniority in the Senate awarded him the chairmanship of the chamber’s Finance Committee from 2003 to 2007 and the top-ranked minority position on the Judiciary Committee from 2007 to today.
Like the Holder dispute, Grassley has used these positions to become a thorn in the side of both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. He says he gets most of his information from whistleblowers and journalists. He blames the Obama administration for pledging to be transparent, then reneging. And he said he is unashamed of his inquiries over the years.
“Oversight is a sort of constitutional responsibility that, if you’re going to do it, you just kind of slog along,” he said. “If you want to quantify it, there would be more oversight of Republican than Democratic administrations since I’ve been in the Senate. But that’s the reputation I have in Washington, not caring who’s president or what political party he is.”
Grassley is counting the 1981-1993 Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as the 2001-2009 Republican presidency of George W. Bush.
And he’s often correct.As a senator Grassley has led probes of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the FBI’s post-9/11 anthrax investigation, the IRS’ treatment of small businesses, federal whistleblower protections, the drug industry’s influence into federal medical research, corruption at the General Services Administration and Food and Drug Administration, lax accountability at the Securities and Exchange Commission and improper credit card usage by Defense Department employees.
But the years have also brought plenty of detractors. Perhaps in a sign of Grassley’s political power, the Justice Department declined to comment for this story, as too did Democratic majority aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
However, a former top Justice Department official with knowledge of Grassley’s recent actions had plenty to say. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his current position in the capital.
The aide noted that Grassley was largely silent during the probe into the U.S. attorney firings during the George W. Bush administration, and said he has shown little regard for fairness during the probe into the “Fast and Furious” program.
“I don’t think anyone would begrudge Grassley’s responsibility to do oversight.
“The problem is, in this case, he has become obsessed to the point where he has really ignored the facts in favor of a witch-hunt,” the aide said. “He makes allegations that just aren’t backed up by what’s on the record.
“It’s true that he has been a thorn in people’s sides of both parties for years when he decides to go after something, but I haven’t seen him going after Cabinet members of the Republican Party like he’s done in this case.”
Asked directly if he’s worried about contributing to the currently polarized atmosphere in Washington, Grassley responds, “Absolutely not,” and said the fragmentation of the national news media is more to blame.
“Polarization comes in Congress partly because society as a whole is more polarized,” he said. “It’s mass communication that has helped divide America, and that’s reflected in Congress.”
Among Grassley’s supporters is the non-partisan National Whistleblowers Center in Washington, led by Executive Director Steve Kohn.
Kohn told The Gazette that over the years, Grassley and his office have consistently been one of the few honest spots on Capitol Hill .
“We look at his office as a safe haven,” Kohn said, “and really honestly the only place in the Senate where I can take a whistleblower and have someone get involved who will be effective and professional.”