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House Democrats cry foul over elimination of civil rights panel

Oversight members debate ‘what this committee stands for’

Ranking member Jamie Raskin, left, speaks with Chairman James R. Comer before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee organizing meeting on Tuesday. Raskin is being treated for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
Ranking member Jamie Raskin, left, speaks with Chairman James R. Comer before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee organizing meeting on Tuesday. Raskin is being treated for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Oversight and Accountability Committee adopted its new rules on Tuesday after rejecting six amendments proposed by Democrats, in a first glimpse of a key committee whose new chairman, James R. Comer, has promised to launch a series of partisan investigations.

The Republican from Kentucky has vowed to probe President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, for alleged “influence peddling,” the U.S. border crisis and the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. A hearing scheduled for Thursday will tackle “waste, fraud and abuse” in federal pandemic spending.

In one of his first moves as chairman, Comer renamed the panel’s five subcommittees, saying it would help jump-start those investigations. 

As part of the subcommittee realignment, Comer eliminated the panel’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which rankled Democrats in the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police.

Freshman Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, introduced an amendment that would have reinstated the subcommittee and “show the American people what this committee stands for,” she said.

She framed it as a choice between “whether we will waste taxpayers’ time and money on fishing expeditions, or whether we will dedicate ourselves to holding those who violate the civil and human rights of our constituents accountable.” 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, one of several GOP firebrands seated on the panel this Congress, said Nichols’ death was tragic but that she doubted it was a civil rights issue. Instead, she shifted the conversation to Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt, who was killed during the Jan. 6 insurrection and whose mother was in the room Tuesday.

“There has never been a trial. As a matter of fact, no one has cared about the person that shot and killed her, and no one in this Congress has really addressed that issue,” Greene said. “And I believe that there are many people that came into the Capitol Jan. 6 whose civil rights and liberties are being violated heavily.”

The move came hours before the House Education and the Workforce Committee similarly adopted rules eliminating its Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services.

Crockett’s proposal to reinstate the Oversight subcommittee was one of six amendments proposed by Democrats, all of which were voted down on party lines.

Among the others were proposals to allow nongovernmental witnesses to participate remotely in committee hearings with the authority of the chair; establish a majority-vote threshold for the committee to issue subpoenas during investigations; and give ranking member Jamie Raskin the same authority as Comer to allow members to participate in the proceedings of subcommittees to which they do not belong.

Raskin, who in December announced he’d been diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, introduced a separate amendment that would have allowed members to participate in committee proceedings virtually when their health is at risk.

“No one should be prevented from performing their duties on behalf of their constituents due to unavoidable or uncontrollable health conditions,” said the Maryland Democrat, who wore a mask except when speaking and a bandana to cover the hair he’s losing as a result of chemotherapy. 

Since regaining power in the House, Republicans have eliminated proxy voting and virtual participation in committees for members and witnesses as part of a larger campaign to move past the COVID-19 public health emergency and return to in-person proceedings.

Comer and other Republicans, who at one point earlier in the hearing gave Raskin a round of applause to show support in his fight against cancer, said they were sympathetic but ultimately voted en bloc against the proposal.

“I will do everything in my ability to work with you to make sure that we can accommodate anything with respect to committee work while you’re undergoing treatment,” Comer said.

Aside from the renamed subcommittees and a rule granting Comer authority to allow nonmember participation in subcommittee proceedings, the text of the rules package is nearly identical to the one adopted by Democrats in the 117th Congress. 

Another change is a provision to allow subpoenaed witnesses to bring nongovernmental attorneys to a deposition. 

The committee voted along party lines, 24-19, in favor of the rules package. Four committee members were not present for the adoption of the rules.

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