By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on CQ Roll Call on Oct. 8, 2014
Marsha Blackburn is quick to point out that a new investigative panel she chairs is not called the “Planned Parenthood Committee.”
“It’s the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives,” the Tennessee Republican says, carefully punctuating each word.
Democrats have their own moniker: “The Republican Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized the panel at a press conference earlier this month.
The war of words offers just a glimpse of the heated battles that likely lay ahead for the subcommittee, which is stacked with some of the fiercest advocates on each side of the abortion debate. But foes of the procedure are eager to distance themselves from claims that their efforts are politically motivated – an accusation that plagued a different GOP investigative panel in recent months.
“This is not about Planned Parenthood,” Blackburn said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “This is about abortion service providers and medical practices and tissue procurement organizations and the relationships between them, so it is broader. It’s going to focus on the industry at large.”
The new subcommittee, housed under House Energy and Commerce, was established last month in the wake of undercover videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood employees haggling over the price of fetal body parts for medical research. Officials maintain they only received compensation for reasonable costs and said the footage was heavily edited by an anti-abortion group in an effort to chip away at abortion rights. The panel is due to be disbanded 30 days after filing a final investigative report.
Blackburn hopes to use the subcommittee to streamline and consolidate ongoing Planned Parenthood investigations that began this summer. Joining her in the probe is Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican who authored a House-passed measure (HR 3134) to freeze Planned Parenthood’s funding for one year. Black is among the most vocal abortion opponents in Congress.
Other Republicans on the subcommittee include retiring Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who received the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee gavel partly for his ardent anti-abortion views; Larry Bucshon of Indiana; Sean P. Duffy of Wisconsin; Andy Harris of Maryland; Vicky Hartzler of Missouri; and Mia Love of Utah.
In the Democratic corner will be Jackie Speier of California, who once passionately spoke about her own abortion on the House floor; ranking member Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; Diana DeGette of Colorado; Suzan DelBene of Washington; Jerrold Nadler of New York; and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey.
Blackburn said she is still in the midst of picking the subcommittee staff and has not yet scheduled the first working session. Blackburn expects that the panel will issue its final report recommending any changes to current laws or regulations by the end of next year.
But skeptics are already drawing comparisons with a special committee to investigate the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. That select panel – which held a high-profile hearing last month with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that lasted for 11 hours – has come under renewed fire after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested that it helped drive down Clinton’s poll numbers.
Similarly, the GOP faces accusations that the controversial sting videos and new subcommittee are part of a political witch hunt designed to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood – a long-time target of abortion foes.
“The similarities between the Planned Parenthood panel and the Benghazi committee are too great to be a coincidence,” DeGette said. “In both instances, multiple congressional committees looked into the issue extensively and found no wrongdoing. And just as the Benghazi committee diverted its attention to Secretary Clinton’s emails, Congresswoman Blackburn has already indicated she intends to spend time and resources on unrelated issues that are important to anti-abortion allies of hers.”
Republicans are aware of the stakes. Any blunders or missteps by the new panel could sap the momentum from anti-abortion efforts and politically damage vulnerable GOP members.
Blackburn is tempering expectations, indicating there will be a limited number of public hearings, with the brunt of lawmakers' work to occur behind closed doors. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee already grilled Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards in a highly charged September hearing, which drew some criticism from conservatives for focusing more on the group’s expenditures than abortion practices.
“Our primary focus is working sessions and information gathering,” Blackburn said. “We look forward to having hearings as needed, but we will follow the facts and go where that takes us.”
The resolution (H Res 461) creating the subcommittee doesn’t actually mention Planned Parenthood. Instead, it advises members to examine business and medical practices at tissue procurement companies, federal funding for abortion providers and whether providers follow current laws regarding abortion procedures or protections for infants born alive after a failed abortion.
Blackburn insists Republicans will be as transparent as possible about the cost of the probe and will strive to be inclusive of Democrats. Republicans offered an amendment to the resolution, which was adopted on the House floor, that added an additional Democratic member to the subcommittee and ensured the panel’s subpoena powers were consistent with those granted to Energy and Commerce.
That may not be enough to assuage some critics’ concerns, especially after Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, acknowledged that he found no evidence of wrongdoing in the family planning organization’s finances. GOP leadership acknowledged they were taking advice from outside groups about which lawmakers to include on the subcommittee, further fueling accusations about political motivations.
The non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has at least one piece of advice for how the panel may further avoid Benghazi panel comparisons: Adopt a set of bipartisan rules that allows votes on issuing subpoenas.
“Establishing evenhanded and non-partisan rules will give the panel the best chance of doing its work without the taint of unfairness and partisan agendas that have haunted similar inquiries,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, wrote in a letter to the subcommittee.