Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., shouted at his House colleague, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a committee hearing on Wednesday to look into alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups.
“Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this,” Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told Issa, the chairman, at a hearing about the IRS political targeting controversy. “You just cannot do this. This, we are better than that as a country. We’re better than that as a committee.”
At first, Issa did not silence Cummings, but then the chairman reached over and muted Cummings’ microphone, telling him the hearing was over.
“We are adjourned,” Issa said.
“I don’t care. The fact is I am asking a question,” Cummings responded. “I am the ranking member of this committee and I want to ask a question! What are we hiding? What’s the big deal? May I ask my question? May I make my statement?”
Issa informed Lois Lerner, a former senior official at the Internal Revenue Service who is at the center of the IRS controversy over targeting of conservative groups and appeared before the committee on Wednesday, as well as the rest of the lawmakers that they were all free to leave.
Issa told Cummings to go ahead and ask his question. After the two became entangled in a disagreement about whether Cummings was asking a procedural question, Issa reiterated the hearing was adjourned and instructed committee staff to “close it down.”
All the Republicans on the committee then stood up and walked out of the hearing. Democrats hissed and booed from their seats at the dais, shouting “shame, shame.”
But Issa did not immediately follow. He once again asked Cummings to state his question, but Cummings shot back: “If you will sit down and allow me to ask a question. I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America! I am tired of this!” he shouted. “We have members over hear each who represent 700,000 people! You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. There is absolutely something wrong with that and this is absolutely un-American.”
Issa then told Cummings, “We had a hearing. It was adjourned. I gave you an opportunity to ask a question. You had no question,” and stormed out of the room.
Although the microphones were turned off, the cameras kept rolling as Cummings delivered a statement lambasting Issa for dictating over the committee. Lerner remained seated and listened from the witness table. A few moments later, Cummings yielded back and Lerner left with her lawyer.
Asked whether he felt personally disrespected by Issa, Cummings was reluctant to clash further.
“I’m not going to get into disrespected,” he said. “We are determined is not to be distracted, to get to the truth, and so I see it as a distraction. I don’t worry about disrespect.”
At the hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Lerner asserted her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions.
Last year, Lerner became a chief target of a congressional investigation into whether the agency unfairly targeted conservative organizations applying for tax exempt status.
Lerner, the former IRS director of Exempt Organizations, first refused to answer questions from members of the committee at the May 22 hearing last year. But that day, when Lerner read a statement aloud and authenticated a document for the record under oath, questions arose surrounding the validity of Lerner’s assertion of her Fifth Amendment. Republicans asserted her actions waived her right to refuse to testify.
On Wednesday Lerner stuck to the script from her counsel. Nine times she declined to answer questions from Issa.
“On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully exercise my fifth amendment right and decline to answer that question,” Lerner repeated over and over.
Issa then said he did not believe Lerner would answer any questions so he tried to adjourn the hearing, which is when the kerfuffle with Cummings began.
“Seeking the truth is the obligation of this committee,” Issa said. “I can see no point in going further. I have no expectation that Ms. Lerner will cooperate with this committee and therefore we stand adjourned.”
Upon learning that Lerner did not answer questions at the committee again, House Speaker John Boehner did not rule out a vote in the House to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
“At some point I believe that she has to testify, or she should be held in contempt,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said.