The House select committee investigating the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, wrapped up this week after more than two years of investigation and more than $7 million in taxpayer dollars spent — ending, as it began, awash in partisan sniping.
Meanwhile, another special House panel that has become enveloped in similar political warfare quietly continues its work. This panel — called the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives —established last year to probe allegations made in undercover videos produced by antiabortion activists is halfway through its year-long mandate to investigate and report on links between abortion providers and medical researchers.
Like the Benghazi committee, the select panel began life with a sharply partisan House vote, and relations between the Republican majority and Democratic minority on the panel have since steadily eroded, with Democrats casting the investigation as a “witch hunt” and pushing repeatedly to end it.
The Republicans have been undaunted, holding two public hearings that have aimed to cast doubt on the ethics and necessity of fetal tissue research, as well as the legality of the commerce in fetal tissue between abortion clinics, medical researchers and the “procurement entities” standing between them. They have also issued dozens of subpoenas to those parties in an effort to document whether the tissue trade has resulted in illegal profits and a tacit incentive to perform more abortions.
“Evidence uncovered through our investigation provides a view of abortion clinics willing to sell baby body parts to make more money,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the panel’s chairwoman, said in a statement. “It shows clinics and middlemen willing to exploit young women because they now see their babies as a profit center. We’ve even learned of a public university embarking on an aggressive campaign to expand abortions by receiving fetal tissue from and sharing staff with a for-profit late term abortion clinic in New Mexico. These disturbing findings are exactly why this investigation is warranted and we will continue to follow the facts in order to complete our report to Congress by the end of the year.”
Last week, panel Republicans accused the University of New Mexico and an Albuquerque abortion clinic of possibly violating state and federal law, delivering a referral for criminal investigation to New Mexico’s attorney general. Blackburn, in a statement, cited evidence that “personnel within UNM’s hospital and medical school have aggressively engaged in expanding abortion in New Mexico through the offices, personnel, and resources of UNM.”
A spokesman for the university’s Health Sciences Center told the Albuquerque Journal last week that researchers paid no money for fetal tissue and that Blackburn had misread New Mexico law. “We categorically deny the chair’s assertions in every respect,” the spokesman, Billy Sparks, said.
The UNM referral came after the panel last month sharpened its focus on StemExpress, a California firm that procures research specimens, accusing it in a letter to federal regulators of engaging in contractual relationships with abortion clinics “under which both sides make a profit from the baby body parts inside the young woman’s womb.”
Democrats — both those on the panel and in the House at large — have pushed back on virtually all the Republican claims and have called for the panel’s shutdown. They have accused their GOP colleagues of engaging in “McCarthyism” rooted in philosophical opposition to abortion and of seeking to intimate law-abiding researchers. The evidence that panel Republicans have presented, the Democrats say, do not support claims of wrongdoing.
“The Republicans should take the lesson learned from their long, costly and partisan Benghazi investigation,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), the panel’s ranking Democrat. “Instead, they continue to follow their same partisan playbook at great cost to American taxpayers and the truth.”
She added that “three other House Republican-led committees and thirteen states investigated [the activists’ videos] and found no wrongdoing. It is time for Republicans to stop spending taxpayer dollars on politically purposed witch hunts. Enough is enough.”
In terms of its scope, the select panel’s charge is broad — it is authorized to look at a range of practices and policies regarding fetal tissue procurement, including those of abortion providers and whether federal resources are indirectly supporting abortion clinics through the tissue trade.
But in terms of the resources, the probe is considerably smaller than the investigation by the Benghazi committee. According to congressional staff records maintained by Legistorm, this panel employs 10 staff members compared with the 28 employed by the Benghazi panel.
The panel is set to expire with the current Congress, and Blackburn said earlier this year that she anticipates issuing a final report before year’s end. There is a caveat: If Republicans maintain control of the House in November, they could vote to continue the panel into 2017 — much as the Benghazi panel was extended.
Earlier this month, the infant-lives panel’s expenditures rose to $790,000 after Republicans on the House Administration Committee quietly moved to authorize an additional $490,000 in spending beyond the $300,000 earmarked for the panel last year. Democrats on that committee have objected to the new funding, calling the panel “nothing more than a political weapon targeting women, doctors and valuable research” in a June 16 letter to Administration Committee Chairman Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.). “We should not reward this catastrophe with more taxpayers dollars,” they wrote.
In a statement, Miller defended the additional funds, saying it was well within the scope of her committee’s powers to “ensure House committee panels have the resources they, both majority and minority, need to conduct their oversight and to address important issues that were not anticipated at the time of the original committee funding hearings.”
The funding is split between Democrats and Republicans, with the majority receiving two-thirds to the minority’s one-third. Aides from both parties expect more funding will be necessary before the panel wraps up its work, but it is not expected to rise to the $7 million spent by the Benghazi panel.
But the work appears destined to remain mired in partisan warfare — demonstrated in the dueling names that Republicans and Democrats are using to describe the panel. The GOP calls it a panel to “protect infant lives”; for Democrats, it is intended to “attack women’s health.”
Together with the Benghazi panel, this select panel’s legacy might well be to mark the increasing politicization and polarization of congressional investigations — a point made this week by the Benghazi panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
“Congress does a lousy job of conducting apolitical nonpartisan investigations, and the American people deserve better,” Gowdy said Tuesday in an MSNBC interview.