Democrats walked out Wednesday during what they called “McCarthyesque” proceedings in a U.S. House of Representatives panel targeting a firm that processes human fetal tissue for medical research.
“The Democrats are refusing to participate in this illegitimate and unsanctioned effort to seek criminal contempt,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the ranking member on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, told Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
As Schakowsky spoke, her fellow Democrats on the panel began exiting the dais. “We refuse to sanction or endorse this exercise by continuing to participate,” she said, then left.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) had interjected with what are known as points of order to challenge the legitimacy of the proceedings. They contended that Blackburn attempted to advance a report recommending contempt charges against StemExpress and the California-based company’s CEO, Cate Dyer, rather than a resolution that can be amended in accordance with standard House operating procedures.
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Blackburn nevertheless continued after whispered consultations with the general counsel for the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the select panel. Two votes on the points of order to stop the proceedings failed along party lines.
Democrats and Republicans held press conference in the hallway following the walkout. Schakowsky told reporters that it’s the “responsibility” of Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) to intervene.
“He needs to protect the rules of the committee, the rules of the house, and take charge now,” Schakowsky said.
Upton, the once-vocal advocate for “life-saving” fetal tissue research, would not say whether he would take up the panel’s contempt charges.
“I don’t know what the rule is,” Upton separately told Rewire before hustling to the House floor.
Repeated inquires to Upton’s committee spokespeople went unanswered.
During the Republicans’ press conference, Blackburn said the panel would leave next steps up to Upton and House GOP leaders—including, presumably, if the contempt charges would proceed through the normal committee process or circumvent it, heading straight to the House floor for a vote.
Blackburn would not say whether she had secured any commitments from Upton and Republican leaders, only that the panel “worked with them every step of the process,” as well as with House counsel.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told Rewire that he “fully supports the effort to enforce the Panel’s very reasonable requests for information,” without commenting on the process.
It’s unclear how hard Blackburn will push Upton, Ryan, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is in charge of scheduling floor votes, to act.
Both Blackburn and her select panel spokesperson indicated that the contempt proceedings amounted to an intimidation tactic and would cease if StemExpress provided accounting documents, banking records, and personnel names. The company claims to have relinquished more than 2,000 pages of documents to various congressional committees, including about 1,700 to the panel.
“Our hope is that this will compel StemExpress to comply,” the spokesperson told reporters before the proceedings. “If they continue to refuse, we will work with House leadership to consider next steps.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member on Energy and Commerce, earlier in the day called on Upton to intervene and demand that Blackburn withdraw the contempt recommendation. Pallone cited the resolution that created the panel and House rules in his argument that Blackburn lacks the authority to proceed.
“This campaign of harassment and intimidation must come to an immediate end,” Pallone told Upton. “I would urge you to address this matter now before additional damage is done, and before this Select Panel is allowed to take action in an area where it has absolutely no authority.”
Pallone expressed concern that the investigation could undermine the 21st Century Cures Act, the committee’s signature bipartisan legislation to accelerate medical research, in part through investment in the National Institutes of Health.
“Our Committee and its members do not improve or promote the health of patients today or tomorrow by intimidating, harassing and bullying companies or forcing them out of business,” Pallone said.