(Opinion column) — Some right-wing U.S. House Republicans have a wincingly imbecilic way of trying to show they’re not waging a war on women. It should be their undoing on the campaign trail next year.
Last week they embarrassed themselves by publicly berating a woman who oversees a nonprofit organization that provides vital health services to more than 2.7 million low-income American women annually. It was a shameful display of how some rabidly conservative politicians use distortions and outright lies to bully women — especially poor women — and treat them as second-class citizens.
Fortunately, it was broadcast live on TV and is available for voters to see on YouTube, hopefully forever.
One of the key players in a disastrous congressional hearing on Planned Parenthood was U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, a Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus that proudly politically pummeled GOP House Speaker John Boehner until he quit his job rather than deal with them.
These “patriots” threatened to shut down the federal government unless Congress defunded Planned Parenthood — something Democrats and reasonable Republicans fortunately prevented them from doing, at least until the current stop-gap measure expires.
The game plan of Lummis and other GOP anti-abortion members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was to badger Planned Parenthood Executive Director Cecile Richards over the organization’s alleged use of federal funds to terminate pregnancies.
The funding issue was just a smokescreen by Republicans to use discredited, heavily edited videos obtained surreptitiously by an anti-abortion group to fool the public into believing Planned Parenthood tries to profit from selling fetal tissue for research.
GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina falsely claimed at a debate last month that she watched a video that showed Planned Parenthood staff discuss how they needed to keep an aborted baby alive so they could harvest its brain and sell it. Despite the fact that even the makers of the video said no such scene existed, Fiorina doubled down on her lie and insisted she saw it.
Recognizing that the truth needn’t be a reason to halt a well-funded partisan smear campaign, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) called for a special investigation of the videos. Richards voluntarily testified before the panel, and in the interest of transparency turned over tens of thousands of documents to the committee, including many it didn’t even request.
In a bizarre opening statement, Chaffetz said both his parents died of cancer and that the nation needs to spend a lot more money to fight the disease. Nobody disagreed. But somehow this is supposed to justify taking money away from Planned Parenthood, even though it provides tens of thousands of cervical cancer exams a year for women who can’t get them anywhere else.
Richards explained while abortion is one of the most expensive procedures that Planned Parenthood provides, it represents only 3 percent of the health services the organization offers. It serves low-income women in mostly rural areas who can’t obtain health care anywhere else.
The director repeatedly backed up her assertion that Planned Parenthood does not use any federal dollars for abortions, except in rare cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother, which is permitted under federal law. As Richards kept reminding the openly hostile panel members, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a constitutionally protected legal right, and the government has no business interfering with a health decision that should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor.
Richards also noted that largely due to the availability of birth control at Planned Parenthood clinics, the rate of teenage pregnancies has decreased by 40 percent. If the pro-life movement’s agenda was strictly about fewer abortions, it should greet that news happily, instead of insisting that every sperm is sacred and every single fetus must be carried to term.
Lummis’ questioning of Richards was slightly less objectionable than the raving, false assertions of Chaffetz, who tried to sneak in a blatantly bogus chart prepared by an anti-abortion group that purported to show the number of mammograms at Planned Parenthood fell while the number of abortions performed rose dramatically. But Lummis’ performance should still embarrass anyone from Wyoming, whether he or she is pro-choice or anti-abortion.
In addition to being way off point in most of her questions, Lummis was extremely rude. Wyoming’s representative never gave Richards a chance to fully answer a single one of her queries before interrupting to change topics. Lummis told Richards that many taxpayers object to using federal money to pay for “abhorrent services.”
Richards: “I’d like to address that, because one of my comments that was made earlier I wasn’t able to respond that we didn’t get a federal subsidy. Really, it’s important to understand for everyone here …”
Lummis interrupts: “Can you function on non-federal dollars? Why do you need federal dollars? You’re making a ton of dough.”
Richards: “We don’t make any profit off of federal funds. If I could just have a moment to explain —”
Lummis interrupts: “But you’re using federal funds and displacing money that could go to 13,000 health care clinics.”
Richards: “I do think it’s really important that you understand that 60 percent of our patients are receiving — are Medicaid patients or they may be Title X patients. Seventy-eight percent of our patients live at 150 percent of the poverty level or below. And for many of them Planned Parenthood is the only family planning provider that will see them in their area.”
Lummis tried to ask a “gotcha” question to make the director admit Planned Parenthood clinics do not have mammogram machines — a fact Richards readily acknowledged. Like many health care clinics, Planned Parenthood gives patients an initial breast exam, and then refers them to a radiology center for a mammogram if a lump is found, and bills Medicaid. It’s standard procedure and not, as Lummis suggested, some kind of sinister plot.
One of the most ridiculous complaints by Chaffetz and other Republicans was about Richards’ supposedly exorbitant salary of $520,000. The chairman sarcastically congratulated her for making so much money, inferring she’s bilking the public. He ignored the fact no federal funds are used to pay her salary — one that’s certainly reasonable for a professional running a huge nonprofit that provides essential health care to millions of women.
The ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, brilliantly retorted that Republicans never talk about cutting federal support to banks whose CEOs make 50 times more than Richards, and who — unlike Planned Parenthood — have actually been convicted of crimes and fined billions of dollars.
Congress has been rife with time- and money-wasting witch hunts in the past few years, including 10 that failed to come up with a shred of administration wrongdoing in the tragedy at Benghazi. They will probably pale in comparison to upcoming GOP attacks on Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s alleged email scandal while she was Secretary of State, even though she broke no laws or even State Department policies.
But trying to tar-and-feather Planned Parenthood by bullying its CEO while threatening to shut down the federal government and kicking their leader’s rear out the door is a new low, even for extremist politicians desperately trying to out-kook each other while pandering to the party’s base. It’s embarrassing to the entire state when our lone congresswoman obviously relishes her participation in a sordid display of partisan politics at its most rancid.
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