A House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday morning began with a heated debate and a walkout over witnesses. The question of who could testify was so contentious because it was part of the fundamental political argument at stake over the administration’s rule on contraception coverage: whether the issue at stake is access to contraception or religious liberty.
At the outset, Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether the Minority’s witness would be allowed to testify. Democrats had requested that Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University Law School, should testify in favor of the administration’s rule to preserve contraception coverage at religiously-affiliated organizations. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa turned down their request, saying that her perspective on contraception was not relevant to a hearing on the subject of religious liberty.
To protest Issa’s decision, Rep. Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) left the room. Norton called the hearing an “autocratic regime” and refused to return. Rep. Maloney later came back to the hearing in order to question the witnesses.
Once the hearing got under way, the contention over the basic issues at stake continued. Republicans and their witnesses argued repeatedly that this had nothing to do with contraceptive coverage or women’s rights; that the only issue at hand was that of religious liberty. Witness Rabbi Meir Soloveichik emphasized, “this an issue of religious liberty and only religious liberty.” A more dramatic witness, the Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, said “We’re hanging by a fingernail. A few strokes of the keyboard could eliminate our religious freedom.”
Throughout the first panel of the hearing, Democrats repeatedly questioned the premise of the hearing. Rep. Jerry Connolly (D-VA) called the proceedings a “sham,” saying they were denied any witnesses that provide another point of view. He also decried the panelists for exaggerating the effect of the new rule in their testimony, for example, alleging Catholic hospitals would have to shut down even though the Catholic Health Association has approved of the rule since the accommodation was made.
In their questions, Democrats consistently raised the subject of contraception rather than religious liberty. Additionally, Democrats drew attention to the all-male faces on the panel, noting that there were no women present to discuss access to contraception.
“I admit that there is a very important question about religious freedom but there is also a very important question about women’s health care,” said Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “We’ve been told repeatedly today, by Chairman Issa and others, that this is not the time, this is not the day to debate that second question.” Murphy then requested a second hearing on access to contraception. In his response, ranking Majority member Rep. McHenry (R-NC) emphasized again that contraception access had no place in today’s hearing, which was about “forcing religious institutions with deeply held moral convictions to do something that is counter to their faith.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.