His face was taut with anger. His voice rose with indignation.
The rage in Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) grew the more Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) disrespected him.
Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, adjourned Wednesday’s hearing on the IRS before allowing Cummings to complete his statement or ask questions, as is customary. Issa dismissed the witness, turned his back and walked away from Cummings as the ranking Democrat on the panel tried to speak.
“Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this. You just cannot do this,” Cummings said just before Issa cut the mike. “We’re better than that as a country. We’re better than that as a committee.”
Most of what Cummings said can no longer be seen on the video posted on the committee’s Web site. It was there, and then it was gone, excised as if the chaos never occurred.
Partisan rancor on Issa’s committee is not new. But Wednesday’s session took it to new and disturbing depths. Issa, who apologized Thursday evening to Cummings, called the hearing to continue examining charges that IRS employees targeted taxpayers based on their political beliefs. Lois Lerner, a former IRS official, was the only witness. As expected, she refused to answer questions, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to.
The committee’s broad charge includes federal workplace issues. In some cases, the panel has managed to get work done, despite partisan differences.
“There is often vigorous disagreement between Members on oversight issues,” said an
e-mail from Frederick R. Hill, Issa’s spokesman, “but the Committee has still been able to come together on a bipartisan basis and advance legislative reforms in many areas, including the IT acquisition process and enhancing protections for whistleblowers.”
Issa did not directly respond to requests for comment.
Although the Lerner hearing was an exceptional case of dysfunction, federal employees have previously been the source of heated arguments among committee members. The partisan animosity takes a toll.
“It makes it very difficult” for the committee to function as it should, Cummings said Thursday. “This committee is vital when it comes to our federal employees.”
For those attending committee hearings, “it does not take very long,” he added, “to hear how negatively federal employees are viewed. All you have to do is sit there and listen for a little while.”
Even before the Lerner hearing, Cummings was not happy with the way his Republican colleagues deal with the federal workforce. “When you hear, in our committee, members beating up on federal employees,” Cummings said in an earlier interview, “it makes it easier for people to see them as a piggy bank.” With “all the negativity” from Republicans, they are basically saying feds “don’t deserve the pensions, they deserve to have furloughs . . . they deserve the three-year pay freeze.”
Republicans haven’t said those exact words. “But that’s the attitude that they take,” he added.
Last October’s 16-day government shutdown, blamed on GOP obstinance, was more in the negative vein, according to Cummings.
“The shutdown was horrible,” Cummings said, “but it did do one good thing. It made people realize how important federal employees are. It reminded them, or let them know, the major roles that they play in everybody’s life.”
The animosity from the hearing continued into Thursday as House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus rallied to Cummings’s defense and against Issa’s actions.
On Thursday morning, video of the hearing on the committee’s Web site included the portion of the hearing when Cummings continued speaking after Issa had adjourned the session. As if to sanitize the record, that portion was removed by Thursday afternoon.
“The portion of yesterday’s events after the adjournment was not part of the official proceeding,” Hill said. Yet the video shows that Cummings began speaking before Issa struck the gavel to adjourn the hearing.
In a letter to Issa, Cummings complained that a draft transcript of the hearing, provided by Issa’s staff, did not correctly indicate the Democrat’s attempt to speak.
“Prior to your adjournment of the hearing, I clearly sought recognition from you in order to exercise my rights under House Rule XI for five minutes of questioning,” Cummings wrote.
What he found particularly upsetting,” he said by phone, was members of Congress being “shut out of the dialogue” on a major committee. “It makes the committee less credible and, I think, quite ineffective. It’s very divisive, very divisive.”
“If that can happen in Congress, then where does it end?”
Cummings said that he has worked well with other Republicans and that he and Issa “occasionally” have good moments.
After accepting Issa’s apology, Cummings issued a statement saying: “My sincere hope is that as we move forward, we will respect the opinions of all members of the committee.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.