CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified what state Rep. Rosa DeLauro represents. She is from Connecticut.
Chairman Darrell Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee almost always delivers a good show. So when the California Republican dove into the tidal wave of contraception controversy on Thursday, it was bound to be a circus.
But it might not have been the kind of circus he intended: Planned Parenthood coined the hashtag #Issacircus on Twitter, prompting hundreds of tweets about the committee’s hearing on a controversial rule from the Obama administration requiring religious organizations to offer health insurance plans that cover birth control free of cost to women.
Issa presided over a raucous three-hour session that included fights about just who would testify, repeated tributes to the Founders, a quote from Stalin, and a discussion of ovarian cancer.
Members tussled to twist the contraception controversy into something worth political points: for Republicans, a fight over religious freedom; for Democrats, a fight over women’s health.
President Obama announced what he called an accommodation last Friday that health insurance plans, and not religious employers, would pay for contraception. But the Catholic bishops were not satisfied and wrote a letter to each senator urging a vote on an amendment from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would give them an out. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would allow a vote on the amendment.
Early on in the hearing, Democrats seized on political gold--a panel of five clergymen and no women. Democrats tried to get Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke on the panel, but Issa rejected their request and 20 minutes of bickering ensued.
“If you’d asked for two fully qualified individuals, or three or four, and particularly if you did it on Monday,” you could of had your witnesses, Issa said to Democrats. “This was not asked for in a timely fashion…. It makes it very difficult.”
“Why in the world is she not qualified? She’s affected by these policies,” asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., one of the four women on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“This hearing is about religious freedom,” Issa responded quickly.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., got wind of it and commented on the all-male panel during her weekly news conference. Planned Parenthood posted a picture of the panel to its Facebook page, getting thousands of views.
But as Democrats tried to stick to women’s health, Republicans limited the discussion to religious freedom, the Constitution, and the separation of church and state. It was as if members of the two parties were attending different hearings.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., a former pastor, told the religious leaders to “speak with clarity” to their congregations, lest America lose its guiding principles of religious freedoms.
“I don’t normally quote Stalin,” Walberg said, “but today he said something appropriate.” Walberg then read a quote from the former communist leader about causing America’s collapse by undermining its “spiritual life.”
“I would encourage the church to fight back strongly against what Stalin understood,” Walberg said solemnly.
“I presume the gentleman brought Stalin up only to bring him down,” Issa quickly interjected.
“Absolutely!” Walberg responded.
The drama didn’t stop there. Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, played a tape of Obama promising Americans they could keep their health insurance if they liked it, and then asked each witness if the president had “kept his word.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is not even on the committee, gave an impassioned speech on surviving ovarian cancer and how taking birth control reduces the risks of cancer.
“I am alive because of the grace of God and because of biomedical research,” she said. “And I have to ask each of you: Are you morally opposed to allowing women who work in your facilities, many of whom are nonreligious … are you opposed to allowing them to take a pill in cases where their lives depended on it?”
Most of the panelists agreed: In times of medical necessity, it was OK to take birth control.