WASHINGTON – Michigan Republican Tim Walberg was a Christian minister before winning election to Congress in 2010 – and he hasn’t entirely changed jobs.
In a rare Tuesday-night committee meeting at which House Republicans advanced a bill curtailing reproductive rights, Walberg took the even rarer step of lecturing his colleagues on Scripture.
“It is clearly taught by Jesus the Christ himself,” Walberg preached to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “for those of us who believe in him – and I understand and I accept the fact that there are those who don’t – but he said render unto Caesar what’s Caesar’s and God what’s God’s, and I think that’s an important consideration for us on this committee tonight.”
Claiming Jesus in a political dispute is inflammatory, particularly when you accuse your opponents, as Walberg did, of “a continued attack on religion.” The appeal to theocracy Tuesday night was even more incendiary because it was used to justify a bid to strike down a new District of Columbia law protecting women from workplace discrimination if they receive fertility treatments, use birth control or have abortions.
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Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., took issue with Walberg. “I studied for the Roman Catholic ministry,” he responded. “But I certainly don’t think that it is my job to propound the dogma of my church as a member of Congress.”
Replied Pastor Walberg: “While I will not wear my religion on my sleeve, I will not hide my faith.”
The late committee meeting, which ended after 7 p.m., was bound to get little media attention. This was probably no accident, because the committee (the same one that three years ago refused to seat Sandra Fluke on an all-male panel about birth control) was causing yet more woman trouble for the party. This time, not a single Republican woman (there’s only one on the committee) spoke in support of the GOP effort, which was demanded by conservative groups such as Heritage Action.
Instead, it was a classic cultural skirmish: Democratic women defended reproductive rights and Republican men defended religious liberty. “This is another example of women being second-class citizens,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill. “We talk about religious freedom, but it is only free if you think like the majority – whatever that happens to be. So much hatred and discrimination in the name of the Lord: slavery, lynchings, the Holocaust, Selma, Japanese internment.”
Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who seemed to think those evils were being “laid at the feet of our party,” countered by tying Democrats to Jim Crow, internment and restrictions on Jewish immigration before World War II. Russell said he would not be cowed from fighting for the voiceless unborn, whom he said were “murder” victims: “Until they have that voice, I will make no apology for being theirs.”
Republicans argue that the D.C. law doesn’t exempt religious and political groups, though the original law amended by the new provisions still has such exemptions.
There’s no doubt Congress has the right to “disapprove” D.C. laws, but lawmakers haven’t used the process in 23 years, and it is at odds with conservatives’ professed devotion to returning power to local levels. Republicans plan to bring their “disapproval” resolution to the full House, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced a similar measure in the Senate, but the GOP doesn’t have a veto-proof majority to kill the law. The main thing Republicans are achieving is inviting Democrats to revive their “war on women” allegations.
“This bill is an insult to women everywhere,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told the committee.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, pointed out that under the Republicans’ logic, a man, too, could be fired, for using a condom, or if his wife used the pill, or if his unmarried daughter became pregnant.
But perhaps the most compelling argument came from Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran who lost both legs in combat and a new mother, who pleaded for an amendment protecting fertility treatments.
“My pregnancy likely could not have happened without in vitro, due to the excess of radiation exposure I received during treatment for my combat-related amputations,” she said. “I feel very strongly that it is heartbreaking that women in this country could be fired simply for using in vitro.”
Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, ruled Duckworth’s amendment out of order, saying it was a “step too far” to try to rewrite D.C.’s law.
Actually, it would appear that Chaffetz is the one who overstepped.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.