As lawmakers race to leave Washington to campaign for re-election, congressional Republicans investigating an evidently nonexistent, illicit market for aborted “baby body parts” will move to hold a firm that processes human fetal tissue for medical research in contempt of Congress.
The so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives plans to recommend that the U.S. House of Representatives pursue the charges against StemExpress and the California-based company’s CEO, Cate Dyer, during a markup Wednesday. A trio of spokespeople for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who has praised the GOP-headed investigation and the leadership of chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), did not immediately return requests for comment about whether he would allow a vote in the coming days or in a potential lame-duck session after Election Day.
Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson did not return a request about whether Ryan has made a commitment to bring the contempt charges to the floor.
Contempt of Congress requires a majority vote in one chamber to refer the subject for prosecution, according to a 2007 Associated Press primer on the process. A 2014 nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report further outlines congressional contempt power and subpoena enforcement.
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A 20-page report accompanying the panel’s announcement details StemExpress’ alleged failures to produce accounting documents, banking records, and “names of key personnel,” per Blackburn’s subpoenas. Blackburn’s panel spokesperson previously told Rewire that the panel required the names of those involved in fetal tissue transactions and research in order to fully understand what they involve.
StemExpress, however, has already claimed to have relinquished more than 2,000 pages of documents to various congressional committees, including the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. The company in May detailed compliance efforts with Blackburn’s subpoenas.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL), the top Democrat on the panel, slammed Blackburn’s latest action.
“The McCarthyesque threat that StemExpress ‘name names’ of all employees or face congressional contempt is disgraceful,” Schakowsky said in an emailed statement. “We will fight this continued abuse of congressional authority every step of the way.”
Also on the select panel’s agenda: a resolution authorizing Blackburn to release a deposition with Eve Espey, chair of the University of New Mexico’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. Blackburn in June recommended state-level criminal charges against the university and Southwestern Women’s Options, a local abortion provider, in the course of her investigation rooted in deceptively edited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos.
Unredacted documents have linked the investigation to the anti-choice front group, which claims that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations. CMP officials have worked closely with Republican lawmakers in attacking funding for Planned Parenthood.
The panel’s announcement did not explain why Blackburn needs or wants to make the deposition public. Blackburn initially failed to redact researchers’ names and contact information in her call for a federal abortion inquiry. Researchers told Rewire that doing so, and the ensuing delay, jeopardized the researchers’ privacy, safety, and job security.
One thing is certain: Blackburn finally made good on long-simmering threats to punish StemExpress. She threatened contempt of Congress in June against “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion”—before a faith-based audience. Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge a month later at a press conference providing an interim update on the panel’s work to reporters. She also deflected questions about next steps in an interview with Rewire at the time.
The panel will convene as the U.S. Congress prepares to recess as early as this week, and no later than next, ahead of November’s presidential election.
Lawmakers face a packed schedule, including a must-pass continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government running past the September 30 end of the fiscal year. Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate are still wrestling over the CR, expected to include a Zika funding deal that addresses the mounting crisis. Though Senate Republicans are likely to drop contraception restrictions that disproportionately affect pregnant people in Puerto Rico, their House counterparts may not accept that concession.
An early recess would almost certainly delay final passage of the Senate’s $100 million for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—unless House and Senate Republicans agree to include the aid package in the CR.
Blackburn had remained quiet on the investigation since Congress reconvened in early September after a seven-week recess. Rewire exclusively reported that Republicans expect to spend $1.2 million on the anti-choice crusade by the end of the year, but face a funding shortfall and an uncertain path forward to make up the balance.