The committee dustup between Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings has Democrats and Republicans at each other’s throats and demanding apologies.
On Wednesday, Issa cut off Cummings’ microphone after abruptly adjourning a hearing with IRS official Lois Lerner. Issa spent about 15 minutes asking Lerner questions, even though she made it clear she would be invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But before Cummings could speak, Issa adjourned the committee.
When Cummings protested and asked for the chance to ask a procedural question, Issa gave him a moment to do so. But when the Maryland Democrat launched into statement attacking Republicans, Issa cut him off.
“We’re adjourned. Close it down,” Issa told committee staff.
Later Wednesday, Democrats on the committee sent Issa a letter demanding an apology. “We believe your actions today were disrespectful and abusive, and they impugn the integrity of this Committee and undermine the credibility of its work,” the letter, which was signed by every Oversight and Government Reform Democrat with the exclusion of Cummings, said. “They also make it appear that the Committee is more concerned with political spectacle than gathering facts in a balanced and impartial manner.”
Cummings is scheduled Thursday morning to stand beside four other ranking members to discuss a pattern of Republican chairmen shutting out Democrats.
On Wednesday, Cummings told CQ Roll Call that he was “just trying to help” Issa get answers from Lerner, saying there may have been an opportunity for her lawyer to provide answers.
“So rather than come out here with nothing,” Cummings said, “all I was trying to do was try to get to the point of, if you want to know at least what she was saying, let all of the Democrats and Republicans gather together, talk to a lawyer, and then he can tell us what she would answer to those questions."
Issa countered that Cummings was trying to deliver a political statement, and that the hearing was, in effect, a resumption of a hearing that began last year, when Lerner first appeared before the panel and pleaded the Fifth.
"We talked about it before the hearing," the California Republican told reporters on Wednesday. "[Cummings] asked, 'Would there be opening statements?' I said, 'No, there wouldn't be, we already opened in May.' And then [at the hearing] he asked if he could ask a question after adjournment, I said, 'What is your question?' and he went into effectively an opening statement accusing me of having all the hearings based on a false premise so then we had already adjourned, I simply walked away. ... He went into a diatribe."
On Wednesday afternoon, after the incident, Cummings was choosing his words carefully — and he refused to say whether he felt disrespected.
“I don’t get caught up in whether there’s a disrespect situation or whatever,” Cummings told CQ Roll Call. “I just want to stay focused and try to solve the problems. I don’t worry so much about who I’m fighting against, I’m more concerned about what I’m fighting for.”
But if Cummings wasn’t immediately seizing the opportunity, other House Democrats were.
"Republican democracy in action," bemoaned House Democratic Caucus Vice-Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York at a Democratic leadership press conference on Wednesday morning, sarcastically calling Issa the "investigative king of America."
"No Chairman should ever silence an opposing view in his [committee]," House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., tweeted. "We can't allow democracy to be suspended." He affixed the tweet with #IssaCircus.
Gerald E. Connolly, a Democratic member of the committee from Virginia, called the incident “profoundly disrespectful.”
“This is about the trampling of constitutional rights, and about minority rights here in the Congress," he said.
Connolly said Issa had to do "a lot more than apologize, I think he has to actually mend his ways — and pretty quickly."
He said there were two models for the Oversight Committee — and Issa had chosen the “Dan Burton model, which is to use it as a partisan cudgel and sort of play fast and loose with facts and analysis, and, for that matter, oversight.”
“And that’s too bad,” Connolly said, “because I actually believe Darrell is a talented person who either chose this role or was selected for this role. But in the process, his hubris and lack of regard for civility and minority rights have completely tainted whatever product he has attempted to produce. It’s all tainted.”
Connolly also said there was a “disturbing trend with Darrell in the way that he treats the ranking member. It borders on the contentious. It is most unbecoming, and it shows a profound lack of respect for Elijah Cummings and who he is and where he came from.”
“It’s a very mean-spirited, cynical but calculated methodology to demean your ranking member, to dismiss him,” Connolly added.
As for what Democrats would do, Connolly said Democrats were going to “assess their options.”
Connolly recalled former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas coming to the House floor to apologize after he summoned the Capitol Police to a pension bill markup in 2003.
"I don't have any illusions about Darrell Issa shedding a tear, but, if he asked my advice, I would caution him greatly to mend his ways or he will find himself called before the full House to account for his behavior."
He added that censure was “absolutely” under consideration.
Another Democratic member of the committee, Jackie Speier of California, said the committee needed to have a meeting with Speaker John A. Boehner “to bring some decorum back to our deliberations.”
Speier said the problems between Issa and Cummings had less to do with their relationship.
“Because I don’t believe the chairman has any interest in creating a relationship with the ranking member,” she said.
“It’s a sparring competition,” Speier said, adding that oversight had been “hijacked by this committee to be a political campaign event each and every hearing.”
Speier said it was “shameful” what had happened in the committee, and she said that Issa’s hoarding of documents was a “flagrant abuse of power.”
Democratic leadership is taking note.
During the first vote series on Wednesday afternoon, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., was seen chatting privately with Cummings in the Speakers' Lobby off the chamber floor. And later, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call that the CBC was "exploring its options" to hold Issa accountable for his behavior.
Still, Issa denies he did anything wrong. In fact, he said Democrats were the ones who needed to mete out punishment.
"I think he should be dealt with by his leadership," Issa said of Cummings. "You know the decorum of the House, the adjournment was appropriate, we had dismissed the only witness and his conduct was inappropriate and rather shocking.
"He owes me an apology," Issa said.
A spokesman for Issa, Frederick Hill, had even stronger words.
“Democrats on our Committee need to drop the fake outrage and acknowledge this is just their political playbook when they don’t like the facts,” Hill said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
The spokesman brought up the two most recent Democratic chairmen — Edolphus Towns and Henry A. Waxman — who had their own issues with Republicans.
“Cummings and crew didn’t seem to have a problem with those things — hard to take their complaints now seriously,” Hill said. “Chairman Issa has been extremely patient in the face of an organized and determined effort to obstruct oversight of the Federal government.”
Hill has been a frequent Issa mouthpiece, issuing stern words for Democrats regarding their own transgressions.
To wit, Connolly said, as a staffer for 10 years in the Senate and as a House member for five years, he’d never seen a staffer so openly attack members as Issa’s spokesman. And if a staffer did, “they would have been dismissed on the spot on that very day.
“And, sadly, Mr. Issa uses him as a tool to disparage, to demean, and it’s created a terrible, terrible legacy, and built up so much ill-will that it will affect him and his effectiveness in Congress for years to come,” Connolly said.
Still, Cummings wasn’t ruling out redemption with Issa.
“Nothing is ever frayed,” Cummings said. “Nothing is frayed until I die.”