Marsha Blackburn isn’t one to worry about appearances.
The Tennessee Republican didn’t make any pretense this week of being impartial with the committee she chairs, the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, commonly known as the Planned Parenthood committee.
On the eve of her panel’s Wednesday hearing, Blackburn went over to Georgetown University to participate in a protest against Planned Parenthood, the very entity she is supposed to be investigating. According to the Right to Life organization, she gave a speech at a gathering called “Life-Affirming Alternatives to Planned Parenthood,” part of a series of events in opposition to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards’s speech at Georgetown on Wednesday.
Then Blackburn showed up at her committee hearing the next morning and proclaimed, “My hope is that both parties can work together.”
That was probably never going to happen – and it certainly isn’t now that the secret videos that justified the panel’s creation have been discredited as doctored.
House GOP leaders created the panel last year in response to the Planned Parenthood videos that suggested the organization was illegally selling tissue from aborted fetuses to researchers for a profit. But investigations in a dozen states looking into the allegations came up empty. In Houston, a grand jury convened by the county attorney, a Republican, not only cleared Planned Parenthood but indicted the video makers on charges of tampering with a government record.
GOP leaders, in naming Blackburn to lead the Planned Parenthood panel, had hopes of defusing the Democrats’ complaint that the probe was another offensive in the Republicans’ “war on women.” That charge has been easier to make with Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential race – and with several House Republicans on Monday making the extraordinary gesture of voting against a ceremonial bill honoring the first woman to be elected to Congress.
But whatever legitimacy the select panel had left after the videos were discredited has been undermined by Blackburn.
She scheduled the committee’s first hearing for the very day the Supreme Court was holding arguments on the most important abortion case in 24 years. At that hearing, one of Blackburn’s witnesses likened fetal tissue research – a legal practice in the United States – to the experiments of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, saying the two are “maybe” equivalent. Blackburn, in her opening statement, drew the same comparison and invoked the Nuremberg Code.
Then came Wednesday’s hearing, the panel’s second. Blackburn gave an opening statement mentioning the buying and selling of “baby body parts” no fewer than seven times.
And the evidence that abortion clinics profit from the sale of these body parts? That would be in “Exhibit G,” handed out by Blackburn’s staff. “The AC [abortion clinic] has no costs so the payments from the PB [procurement business] to the AC are pure profit,” it said.
But this incendiary “exhibit” – asserting that any abortion clinic that receives any payment for fetal tissue is breaking the law – turned out to be not evidence but an undocumented claim by the Republican staff.
“I think that these exhibits were created from whole cloth,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) a member of the panel. She objected to the use of the exhibits, claiming they violated House rules. Republicans moved to table her objection and prevailed on a party-line vote.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) tried again. He raised a parliamentary inquiry about how the “pure profit” conclusion was reached – particularly because it was contradicted by three other exhibits that appeared to document activities performed by abortion clinics in the tissue sales that have associated costs.
Blackburn declared that there was “no discrepancy” and that the documents “come from the investigative work” of staffers.
The doubts about the videos and the unsupported “exhibit” did not stop the majority on the panel and their witnesses from relying on both. “Gruesome revelations came from a series of videos,” declared Michael Norton, one of the witnesses. “It was clear from the videos that Planned Parenthood had been actively engaged in harvesting and trafficking, for profit, body parts of babies whose lives Planned Parenthood had ended.”
Another majority witness, Catherine Glenn Foster, cited the “undercover videos” and the “evidence presented by this panel.”
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) spoke about how the “select panel investigation reveals” that “abortion clinics are incurring no costs” – and therefore reaping profits from fetal tissue.
And Kenneth Sukhia, yet another witness for the majority, said the discredited videos provide “corroborative evidence” that Planned Parenthood broke the law, saying “it doesn’t matter” that statements in the video were selectively edited.
It doesn’t matter?
After doctored videos, unsubstantiated “exhibits” and political moonlighting by Blackburn, those assessing the panel’s relevance will conclude just that.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.