Commentary Politics

Budget Committee Hearing on Poverty Turns Into Nun-Bashing Tournament

Adele M. Stan

House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan presided over a hearing called to assess the "war on poverty." But with a liberal nun on the witness panel, it became a war on religion.

As the budget strategy of House Republicans began to unravel Wednesday with the withdrawal from the floor of a major spending bill, Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the Committee on the Budget, appeared unfazed. He had a plan: Blame the poor and the liberals who seek to keep them from going hungry.

His committee colleagues, however, amended the strategy a bit to this: Blame the nun and her bad theology.

A Wednesday budget committee hearing billed as a “progress report” on the “war on poverty,” clearly convened by Ryan as an indictment of the social safety net, quickly devolved into an inquisition of witness Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the social justice group NETWORK who is famous for leading last year’s Nuns on the Bus campaign.

It wasn’t the first time Ryan and Campbell had faced off. Nuns on the Bus first won media attention when Campbell and her fellow sisters launched their road trip during the presidential campaign to protest Ryan’s safety-net-slashing 2012 budget. And, speaking from the podium of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Campbell said that the budget crafted by Ryan, who is Roman Catholic, flew in the face of Catholic moral teaching.

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So, while Ryan managed to be unfailingly polite to Campbell at the hearing (well, except for failing to laud her as an expert in her field—she’s a family law attorney—or acknowledge her role as the leader of an organization), his colleagues stood ready to take aim at her theology, which they sought to portray as flawed. (The other witnesses were Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families; Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy; and Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.)

Ryan’s intent was clear in his opening statement. After saying that the U.S. government had spent $15 trillion in anti-poverty programs since 1964 and had little to show for it, he went on to assert of his hearing, “This isn’t about cutting spending. It’s about improving people’s lives.”

The committee’s ranking member, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), noted in his opening statement that Ryan’s budget plan calls for converting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, into a block grant funded at levels one-third below Congressional Budget Office estimates of anticipated need. (Just last month, the House passed a farm bill that eliminated SNAP from the final version, leaving the Appropriations Committee to find another way to fund the program.)

Campbell’s testimony focused on the “faithful budget” on which NETWORK and other faith groups collaborated—a budget proposal designed to address poverty and other social justice needs.

As the question-and-answer session got underway, it became clear that Campbell’s unusual combination of credentials, combined with her liberal politics, got under the skin of members of what is often described as God’s Own Party. Many of the the Republicans who questioned her felt the need to assert their own religious bona fides before lobbing their rhetorical grenades.

Todd Rokita (R-IN) spoke of his Catholic schooling, while Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) began her questioning by saying, “I was teaching a Sunday school class …” And Reid Ribble (R-WI) began his questioning by mentioning all the many pastors in his family. “Christianity is all about the church reaching out to the poor,” Ribble said. “What is the church doing wrong that it needs to come to government (to fund anti-poverty efforts)?” he asked of Campbell.

“I think it’s more a reflection of the dimension of the issue,” Campbell replied. She cited a study issued last year that estimated every house of worship in the nation would have to contribute an additional $50,000 per year for the next ten years in order to make up for Republican budget cuts to the social safety nets of just two states.

Jim McDermott (D-WA) was just beside himself after that. “This hearing is surreal,” he said. “It ought to be about jobs. … We are not living in the real world. Nobody here has to make a decision about whether you feed your kids or not.”

Indeed, a recent Associated Press survey found that “[f]our out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”

Barbara Lee (D-CA) lamented the fact that the committee failed to call as a witness anyone who had ever relied on public assistance to get by, although both she and Gwen Moore (D-WI) spoke to their own experience as having relied on the safety net earlier in their lives.

New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett invoked the book of Genesis to suggest that people who receive public assistance don’t want to work, saying, “God actually took man and put him into the Garden of Eden and directed him to work the Garden of Eden. And if I remember my scripture well, it was actually before the fall (from grace). … After the fall, of course, he and Eve had sinned, and it wasn’t so easy to work the Garden anymore; he had the (expulsion) and the rest to deal with. But from a Catholic and Christian imperative, work is a moral imperative.”

And we all know who caused Adam to commit that original sin.

Later in the hearing, Campbell responded to a question from Roger Williams (R-TX), who challenged the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for businesses by saying, “Regulation helps us avoid the wages of original sin.”

Blackburn notched up the religion attack on Campbell by challenging the nun’s Catholic credentials because her group had been targeted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during last year’s crackdown by the Holy See on liberal U.S. nuns. It was a shockingly untoward wade by a Protestant into the internal politics of the Roman Catholic Church.

After noting her role as a religion teacher, and asking budget and taxation questions of the witnesses, Blackburn launched her barrage against Campbell. “You say that you come before this committee today … as a Catholic sister rooted in the Christian tradition,” said Blackburn. “Would it be fair for this committee to question the validity of your testimony knowing that the Vatican has reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and singled out your organization in an official … doctrine of assessment for only promoting issues of social justice and being silent on the right to life from conception to natural death?”

Responding, Campbell said, “I believe that the [action of the] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is about theological struggles; it is not about our engagement in political activity. And as I said in my testimony, our organization works on economic issues.”

“Is everything in your testimony today compatible with positions taken by the Catholic church?” Blackburn continued.

“Yes,” Campbell replied. She also noted that she is “pro-life.”

Blackburn’s questioning was too much even for Ryan, who stepped in to defend his fellow Catholic from attack by the Protestant lawmaker. After explaining the Catholic teaching on matters of “prudential judgment,” he said, “There are areas where we exercise prudential judgment, and this economic sphere is clearly one where we have exercised prudential judgment and arrived at different conclusions, such as economic growth, poverty, and the rest. I say this as a Catholic who disagrees with you sometimes on these issues, I think you’re well within Catholic teaching to give the testimony that you gave here today.”

But the prize for nun-dissing in Wednesday’s war-on-poverty hearing goes to Todd Rotika (R-IN), who asked Campbell, “What’s the number we have to confiscate in terms of the property of other people in order to solve your budget?”

He didn’t stop there; he kept talking, essentially indicting Campbell as a would-be thief, running out the clock on the time he was allotted before she could answer.

The nun smiled incredulously and threw up her hands when she was prevented from answering. “A cliffhanger,” she joked.

Then Rotika asked for a point of personal privilege, saying that after enduring eight years of Catholic school, he had always wanted to do that to a nun. So proud he was of his performance that he posted the video.

Rep. Todd Rotika’s questioning of Sister Simone Campbell begins at the 4:08 mark.

News Abortion

Democrats to Speaker Ryan: End GOP ‘Witch Hunt’ on Fetal Tissue, Later Abortion Practices (Updated)

Christine Grimaldi

Democrats implored House Speaker Paul Ryan “not to stand idly by while tax dollars are spent on a baseless investigation that endangers women, scientists, health providers, and others involved in women's health care and biomedical research.”

UPDATE, May 26, 9:05 a.m.: The Democrats’ letter gained three signatories later on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) told Rewire. A total 181 out of 188 Democrats are now calling for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to disband the GOP-led investigation into fetal tissue and later abortion practices.

Nearly every Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives called on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to disband a panel relying on anti-choice allegations to investigate fetal tissue and later abortion practices.

“The onus is on you to put an end to this witch hunt,” the lawmakers, accounting for 178 of the House’s 188 Democrats, said in a letter to Ryan. “You cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the serious risks presented by the panel and still claim to fulfill your responsibilities as Speaker.”

The Democrats requested a written response from Ryan by June 6.

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“Speaker Ryan supports the Select Committee’s continued efforts to protect infant lives,” AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for Ryan, said in an email to Rewire.

The so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives escalated what Democratic lawmakers called a “pattern of reckless disregard for safety” in recent weeks when Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) shifted the inquiry’s focus from fetal tissue procurement and research to later abortion care.

A press release accompanying Blackburn’s batch of subpoenas named a later abortion provider and clinic. Coupled with the release’s “hyperbolic rhetoric and misleading allegations,” the Democrats charged that the latest move could endanger the provider, staff, and patients.

The subpoenaed clinic is already a target of the radical anti-choice group Operation RescueTroy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president, and David Daleiden founded the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group behind the discredited smear campaign alleging that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations.

Blackburn still references the CMP videos as she issues subpoenas and holds hearings on those allegations. GOP hearing exhibits reportedly duplicated or nearly duplicated the “evidence” in the CMP attack videos.

It is not unthinkable for such rhetoric to draw newfound violence to the subpoenaed clinic, pro-choice advocates have charged. Blackburn and the panel’s Republicans repeatedly refer to “baby body parts,” which mirrors the language of the accused Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, who called himself a “warrior for the babies.” An April National Abortion Federation report found unprecedented levels of anti-choice violence and threats, including a spike after the release of the CMP videos, against abortion providers in 2015.

Democrats implored Ryan “not to stand idly by while tax dollars are spent on a baseless investigation that endangers women, scientists, health providers, and others involved in women’s health care and biomedical research.”

The investigation is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. A senior House Democratic aide with knowledge of the chamber’s rules told Rewire that the panel operates from the budget of the full committee with jurisdiction—the House Energy and Commerce Committee—and from an additional House Administration Committee transfer of $300,000 last year. The panel’s Republicans received $200,000 and Democrats $100,000 under the House’s informal two-thirds/one-third funding split between the majority and minority parties.

“These recent steps are completely outside the bounds of acceptable Congressional behavior,” the Democrats said. “We disgrace ourselves by allowing this misconduct to continue.”

News Abortion

The Forgotten History of Republicans’ (Failed) Attacks on Fetal Tissue Research

Christine Grimaldi

Today's congressional inquiry not only derides fetal tissue research, but attacks abortion care. The inaugural hearing in March 2016 gave Republicans a platform to compare fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation. Republicans derided Democrats for exaggerating the importance of fetal tissue.

Republicans in Congress sixteen years ago were more vested in supporting life-saving fetal tissue research than they were in mischaracterizing such research to score political points.

The times, and the talking points, have changed.

In 2000, GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives conducted an investigation into fetal tissue practices based on a deceptive Life Dynamics video featuring a disgruntled former tissue procurement company employee. Dean Alberty alleged that two of his employers, Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF) and Opening Lines, which acquired and distributed human fetal tissue to researchers, trafficked fetuses for profit. He also claimed that abortion providers altered procedures to obtain better tissue specimens. 

Life Dynamics, which remains a prominent anti-choice group, paid Alberty thousands of dollars during and after the time he worked in the tissue procurement business. Republicans summoned Alberty to be their key witness, but he later admitted under oath that he had lied about business operations in the Life Dynamics video and in an interview with the then-prominent ABC television news program 20/20.

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Alberty’s reveal came as a surprise, and an embarrassment, to Republicans during a hearing on the allegations before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health and Environment.

“Your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot,” said then-Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC), who now serves in the U.S. Senate.

Sixteen years later, credibility doesn’t seem to carry the same weight for anti-choice Republican lawmakers as a new set of videos alleging problems with fetal tissue donations have simultaneously been discredited but are still being used as the basis of hearings some have called a witch hunt.

In July 2015, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), sponsor of the so-called Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016, and some of his colleagues coordinated with the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group responsible for the widely discredited smear campaign alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations.

The House Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform committees launched investigations upon the release of the first surreptitiously recorded videos and have continued to attack fetal tissue research, even though GOP officials in 12 states have since cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.

The first set of House hearings also failed to turn up any evidence that laws governing fetal tissue donation or research had been broken.

House Republicans nonetheless voted in October to form the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, an Energy and Commerce panel relying on the CMP videos and other allegedly falsified evidence to prove their charges of “baby body parts” for sale.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the panel’s chair, and other congressional committees have subpoenaed more than 2,000 pages of documents from tissue procurement company StemExpress. However, Blackburn has not brought in David Daleiden, the founder of CMP, to testify, although he now faces felony charges for his role in the original smear campaign.

Daleiden Testimony Could Undermine Republicans

Precedent doesn’t bode well for Republicans and their supposed whistleblowers.

Alberty, for example, expanded on his allegations of fetal tissue misconduct in the 20/20 interview with then-correspondent Chris Wallace, who now anchors Fox News Sunday. 20/20 separately targeted Opening Lines founder Dr. Miles Jones in an ostensibly damning undercover video included in the segment.

Alberty was unequivocal about wrongdoing. “This is purely for profit. Everything was about money,” he told Wallace. 

Wallace, for his part, narrated that Alberty had accepted thousands of dollars to act as an informant for Life Dynamics while continuing to work in the tissue procurement business. Why believe Alberty, then?

“I will stand behind my words until I die,” Alberty said. “I will go in front of Congress if I have to and testify under oath.”

Alberty appeared before the subcommittee the morning after the 20/20 segment aired. By that time, he had changed his story in an affidavit and a deposition that Democrats referenced to undermine his claims.

“When I was under oath I told the truth,” Alberty admitted during the hearing. “Anything I said on the video when I’m not under oath, that is a different story.”

Alberty’s name resurfaced at the select panel’s April 2016 hearing on fetal tissue “pricing,” which featured GOP exhibits reportedly taken from the CMP videos. Fay Clayton, a senior partner and founding shareholder of Robinson Curley & Clayton, P.C. and a witness for the Democrats, recalled her experience representing AGF. Alberty admitted to fabricating claims about AGF in the deposition with Clayton. 

Republicans did not know about the deposition until Democrats raised it during the 2000 hearing.

“Fetal tissue wasn’t ‘for sale’ at all,” Clayton said at the 2016 “pricing” hearing. “What was for sale was phony witness testimony, bought and paid for by opponents of abortion.”

An FBI investigation cleared Opening Lines and Jones of the trafficking charges. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) also found no violations of federal statutes and closed an investigation in 2008, Robert Raben, a former DOJ official, said when he testified for the Democrats at the panel’s 2016 “pricing” hearing. 

Clayton called for members of the panel to get Daleiden under oath to tell the truth or face legal repercussions for perpetuating his claims. However, Republicans misrepresented Clayton’s testimony by saying she called for StemExpress to turn over accounting records. Blackburn soon subpoenaed those records and threatened “to pursue all means necessary” as the investigation proceeds.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, has no doubts about why Republicans continue to rely on third-party witnesses rather than Daleiden.

“I don’t think they want to bring David Daleiden in because they know that he’s a shady character and an unreliable witness,” DeGette said in an interview with Rewire.

Anti-Choice Tactics Influence Current Inquiry

As the only lawmaker to serve on the past and present investigations, DeGette sometimes feels like she’s “in a real-life version of Groundhog Day.”

“We keep having these same kinds of hearings, over and over again,” DeGette said. “In my opinion, there’s continuing pressure on the Republican Party from the far-right anti-choice movement to have these hearings, even though the claim of sale of fetal tissue has been repeatedly disproved.”

Anti-choice tactics, if not the key players, behind what congressional Democrats have branded a “witch hunt” to undermine fetal tissue research are similar today.

Life Dynamics, the anti-choice group behind the Alberty video, receives the majority of its funding from fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks—the main backers of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) suspended presidential campaign. Providers told Rewire in March that a Life Dynamics document has been used to deceive and intimidate both patients and providers by threatening legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing abortion care.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the past and present inquiries is Republicans’ attitudes toward fetal tissue research—and their ability to separate research from abortion.

The shift can be summed up in one word: politics.

“I think the difference is a structural one with a political origin,” Raben, the former DOJ official, told Rewire in an interview.

Republicans in 2000 investigated fetal tissue practices as part of a standing subcommittee. House Republicans today created the select panel, sought members to serve on it, and despite the lack of any evidence, continue to fund it through tax dollars that otherwise would not be diverted to sustained attacks on fetal tissue research.

“In the face of lousy evidence, they’re going to keep going,” Raben said.

Inquiries Diverge on Science

The current inquiry not only derides fetal tissue research, but also attacks abortion care. The inaugural hearing in March 2016 gave Republicans a platform to compare fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation. Blackburn subsequently derided Democrats for exaggerating the importance of fetal tissue.

Democrats have warned that such rhetoric could slow scientific advances on dangerous diseases, including the Zika virus, which is linked to irreparable defects in the developing fetuses that Blackburn and her Republican counterparts have pledged to protect.

In 2000, even anti-choice Republicans repeatedly deferred to science on fetal tissue research.

“Today’s hearing is not about whether fetal tissue research is a good or bad thing, and it is definitely not about whether a woman should have a right to choose to have an abortion, which is the law of the land,” former Energy and Commerce Chair Tom Bliley (R-VA) said in 2000. “Whether we are pro life, pro choice, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, I think and hope that we can all agree that present federal law which allows for this research should be both respected and enforced.”

At that time, leading Republicans on the subcommittee also extolled, in the words of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the “life-saving research” that their investigation aimed to protect.

Upton had worked in 1992 with former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) to lift the ban on fetal tissue research. And he further expressed disappointment when President George H.W. Bush vetoed their effort.

“It’s really tragic,” Upton said then. “We tried to lift the substance over politics.”

President Bill Clinton signed legislation legalizing fetal tissue donations in 1993. “Being for fetal tissue transplantation is consistent with being for life,” Upton reportedly said during that era.

Republican Fetal Tissue Allies Disappear

Upton’s approach today does not reflect what happened the last time an anti-choice group manipulated evidence and fed it to congressional Republicans. The contents of CMP’s heavily edited smear videos “can’t help but make you weep for the innocents who were sacrificed in such a cavalier manner for alleged profit,” Upton wrote in a op-ed published in the weeks after the release of the first CMP recording.

Although Upton does not serve on the panel, he effectively sanctions the investigation as chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Under House rules, standing subcommittees draw funding from the budget of the full committee with jurisdiction. The full committee chair is in charge of managing additional funds from the House Administration Committee, which sets aside $500,000 per session of Congress to supplement operating budgets, according to a senior House Democratic aide with knowledge of the chamber’s rules.

The aide said the panel follows the same procedures, receiving an undisclosed amount from Energy and Commerce and an additional $300,000 from Administration.

Administration Democrats unsuccessfully protested the transfer at the end of last year. “Spending taxpayer money on this select panel is wasteful on substantive grounds and unnecessary on practical grounds,” they said.

The transfer followed the House’s informal two-thirds/one-third funding split between the majority and minority parties, with the Republicans receiving $200,000 and the Democrats $100,000, the aide said. Full committee leaders are charged with distributing the funds, meaning that Upton had to do so with the $200,000 for Blackburn, the aide said.

Rewire contacted Upton’s office with questions ranging from whether the chair approves of the panel’s approach to how much more financial resources he will direct from the full committee’s budget to the panel. Rewire asked for Upton’s views on fetal tissue research, including if he shares Blackburn’s derision for the research and if he considers fetal tissue and “baby body parts” to be separate.

In response, a committee spokesperson emailed a brief statement. “The efforts of the Select Panel have always been based on learning the facts,” the spokesperson said. “The panel has been given a one-year term to conduct that mission, and will continue their important work. Chairman Upton has been a supporter of the panel’s charge and their efforts to protect the unborn.”

Republican Leaders Disregard Appeals to Disband Panel

Although Upton’s office told Rewire that the panel was given one year, the resolution that created the panel suggested it could go longer. The resolution only specifies that the panel will come to an end 30 days after filing a final report.

Democrats have repeatedly called on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to disband the panel, including in a letter to Ryan and Blackburn last month. The panel’s Democrats again appealed to Ryan after Blackburn subpoenaed a prominent abortion provider, shifting the target from fetal tissue procurement and research to later abortion care.

DeGette said some congressional Republicans have privately shared concerns about the panel with her, but won’t do so publicly, even as their counterparts on the panel have gone “rogue.”

“This is so out on the fringes that really, I think it’s beginning to reflect on Speaker Ryan and on the whole Republican leadership in the House,” she said.