Updated 11:57 a.m. | House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., cut off Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' microphone and adjourned this morning's hearing on the IRS while Cummings was still speaking — marking a new low in the pair's rocky relationship.
The dust-up came at the end of the hearing where IRS official Lois Lerner again pleaded the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify — when Cummings, the ranking member of the panel and a Maryland Democrat, sought to ask a question and make a statement on the IRS inquiry.
But Issa cut off Cummings' microphone with a hand to the throat gesture as Cummings started to make a statement about Issa's handling of the investigation instead of asking a question.
Democrats immediately ripped into Issa.
"Republican democracy in action," said Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York at a Democratic leadership news conference. "What has happened to regular order? What has happened to both sides being able to weigh in? Mr. Issa, I understand, had the opportunity to make an opening statement as the Chairman of the Committee. He did not offer that same respect, that collegial respect, to the ranking member, Mr. Cummings."
"That, I think, further demonstrates the breakdown, the camaraderie, or what is wrong with Washington and the Congress today."
Crowley also took a jab at Republicans' continued investigation into the IRS.
"Congressman Cummings will ... have an opportunity to express his thoughts in terms of this false investigation," he said. "There's no smoking gun except for a cap gun that makes a lot of smoke but that's it. ... If there was an issue of corruption, Mr. Issa was informed of it prior to the 2012 elections of this investigation. If Mr. Issa, the Investigative King of America, didn't choose to investigate it back then, when the president was on the hook for an election, but all of a sudden, now they find it? It doesn't smell right."
Here's a transcript of the exchange:
CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this. You just cannot do this. We are better than that as a country. We are better than that as a committee.
I don't care but the fact is I am asking a question. I am the ranking member of the committee and I want to ask a question.
What are we hiding? What's the big deal. May I ask my question? May I make my statement?
ISSA: You are all free to leave, we've adjourned, but the gentleman may ask his question.
CUMMINGS: Thank you very much. Mr. Chairman, I have one procedural question, and it goes to trying to help you get the information by the way that you just asked.
ISSA: What is your question?
CUMMINGS: No, let me say what I have to say. I've listened to you for the last 15 or 20 minutes. Let me say what I have to say. Chairman, I have one procedural question.
ISSA: Ms. Lerner, you're adj — you're released — you may ...
CUMMINGS: But first, I would like to use my time to make some brief points. For the past year, the central Republican accusation ...
ISSA: We're adjourned, close it down. ...Thank you.
CUMMINGS (mic cut off): ... in this investigation (garbled) ...
CROWD: Shame, shame
CUMMINGS: ... Before our committee read a single document or interviewed one witness Chairman Issa went on national television (crosstalk) the president's political enemies effectively and lied about it during an election year. He continued this theme on Sunday ...
ISSA: Mr. Cummings ... Mr. Cummings, what is your question?
CUMMINGS: If you will sit down and allow me to ask a question ...
Issa has been probing the IRS's delays and targeting of tea party and other groups' applications for tax-exempt status. In particular, Republicans have been trying to tie the IRS investigation to the White House. But Lerner has refused to testify. And President Barack Obama in an interview before the Super Bowl maintained there was no corruption at the IRS.
Cummings' office later released the congressman's prepared statement that he had intended to read in full before he was cut off:
Mr. Chairman, I have one procedural question, but first I would like to use some of my time to make a few brief points. For the past year, the central Republican accusation in this investigation has been that this was political collusion directed by—or on behalf of—the White House. Before our Committee received a single document or interviewed one witness, Chairman Issa went on national television and said this: “This was the targeting of the President’s political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year.” He continued this theme on Sunday when he appeared on Fox News to discuss a Republican staff report, claiming that Ms. Lerner was “at the center” of this effort to “target conservative groups.” Although he provided a copy of his report to Fox, he refused my request earlier this week to provide it to Members of this Committee. The facts, however, do not support these claims. We have now interviewed 38 employees who have all told us the same thing—that the White House did not direct this, suggest it, or even know about it at the time it was occurring. And none of the witnesses or the documents identified any political motivation. The Inspector General, Russell George, told us the same thing. He found no evidence of any White House involvement or political motivation. Instead, the very first line of the “results” section of his report says that it began with employees in Cincinnati who “developed and used inappropriate criteria to identify applications from organizations with the words Tea Party in their names.” Our Committee confirmed this fact when we interviewed a Screening Group Manager from Cincinnati. This manager explained that his employees were the ones who first came up with inappropriate search terms in 2010. He denied any political motivation, and he made his point by explaining that he is a “conservative Republican.” I released his entire interview transcript eight months ago for anyone who wants to read it for themselves. The Inspector General’s report also found that Ms. Lerner did not discover the use of these criteria until a year later—in 2011. When she learned about them—and I quote again from the report—Ms. Lerner “immediately directed that the criteria be changed.” Mr. George’s chief investigator also reviewed more than 5,500 emails from IRS employees and—again—found no evidence of political motivation. Over the past year, our Committee has obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of witnesses. The IRS has spent more than $14 million responding to congressional investigations. But we have identified absolutely no evidence to support allegations of a political conspiracy against conservative groups. What we have identified, however, is evidence of gross mismanagement. Ms. Lerner failed to discover that employees were using these search terms for a year, and even after she ordered them to stop, they returned to using similar inappropriate criteria. And, like former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, Ms. Lerner failed to inform Congress about what she knew. So I do have serious questions for Ms. Lerner, and I am disappointed I will not get to ask them today. But I do not support the Republican conclusion that she waived her Constitutional rights nine months ago when she invoked the Fifth Amendment, and I do not believe a court would uphold that conclusion. Now, Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask my procedural question. On February 26, Ms. Lerner’s attorney sent a letter to the Committee saying that he met with your staff last month. At that meeting, her attorney wrote, “The staff asked if I would provide a proffer of the testimony she would give if immunized, and I agreed to do that.” But that did not happen. As I understand it, accepting a proffer does not grant immunity to the witness. It does not bind the Committee in any way. Instead, it allows the Committee to obtain information without requiring the witness to waive her Fifth Amendment rights. I was not invited to the meeting last month with Ms. Lerner’s attorney, and I have not been included in any negotiations. But it seems to me that the Committee loses nothing by accepting this proffer, and in fact we may gain important information. To prepare for today’s hearing, we sought the legal opinion of Stan Brand, who served as the General Counsel for the House of Representatives from 1976 through 1983. According to Mr. Brand, a proffer is “simply a representation of what a witness’s testimony would be if called given by the attorney for the witness.” Mr. Brand makes clear that accepting a proffer does not grant the witness immunity. He states: “It is not a waiver of the privilege and thereby preserves the right of the witness to assert it in any subsequent proceeding.” So Mr. Chairman, my question is whether the Committee can schedule a time—preferably this week—for all Committee Members to hear the proffer from Ms. Lerner’s attorney. Mr. Chairman, can we do that?Emma Dumain contributed to this report.