Democrats lock Republicans out of committee room

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) locked Republicans out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee room to keep them from meeting when Democrats aren’t present.

Towns’ action came after repeated public ridicule from the leading Republican on the committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), over Towns’s failure to launch an investigation into Countrywide Mortgage’s reported sweetheart deals to VIPs.

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For months Towns has refused Republican requests to subpoena records in the case. Last Thursday Committee Republicans, led by Issa, were poised to force an open vote on the subpoenas at a Committee mark-up meeting. The mark-up was abruptly canceled. Only Republicans showed up while Democrats chairs remained empty.

Republicans charged that Towns canceled the meeting to avoid the subpoena vote. Democrats first claimed the mark-up was canceled due to a conflict with the Financial Services Committee. Later they said it was abandoned after a disagreement among Democratic members on whether to subpoena records on the mortgage industry’s political contributions to Republicans.

A GOP committee staffer captured video of Democrats leaving their separate meeting in private chambers after the mark-up was supposed to have begun. He spliced the video to other footage of the Democrats’ empty chairs at the hearing room, set it to the tune of “Hit the Road, Jack” and posted it on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s minority webpage, where it remained as of press time.

Towns’s staffers told Republicans they were not happy about the presence of the video camera in the hearing room when they were not present. Issa’s spokesman said the Democrats readily acknowledged to Republicans that they changed the locks in retaliation to the videotape of the Democrats’ absence from the business meeting even though committee rules allow meetings to be taped.

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"It's not surprising that they would choose to retaliate given the embarrassment we caused by catching them in a lie on tape,” said Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella. “If only they
would use their creative energy to do some actual oversight rather than resorting to immature tactics, but I guess we're getting some insight into what lengths they'll go to avoid addressing the Countrywide VIP issue."

Towns’s office said in a statement the locks were changed on Republicans "because they don't know how to behave." As for the video the GOP made, Towns's office pointed out: "The minority is using taxpayer dollars to make these campaign style videos." 

Bardella replied: "It's also those same taxpayer dollars that paid for them to sit in a room while they came up with an excuse to cancel the mark-up -- what exactly do they do all day?"

The partisan sniping recalls a similarly bitter name-calling match between House Republicans and Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee in 2003 when Republicans controlled the majority and former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) chaired the panel. The episode ended in Thomas, known for his acerbic tongue, summoning the Capitol Police to evict an outraged gaggle of Democratic colleagues from a library in the Longworth House office building.

The committee had convened that morning to consider a bipartisan bill that would revise the nation's pension and retirement-saving system.

Democrats objected when Thomas brought up a 90-page substitute measure that had been released shortly before midnight the night before. Democrats said they needed more time to read it. Thomas disagreed.

In response, Democrats objected to a normally perfunctory motion to dispense with the reading of the dense legislation. A clerk obligingly began reading it line by line.

Democrats departed to a library just off the main hearing room, leaving only Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) to prevent the Republicans from obtaining unanimous consent to skip the reading. After a few minutes, Thomas asked again for the unanimous consent, and instantly brought down his gavel. Stark told reporters he had objected, but Thomas had replied, "You're too late."

Even before Thomas gaveled the reading to an end, he had directed staff to call the Capitol Police to remove the Democrats form the library.

Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America, was reported to have given VIP loans and treatment to lawmakers and officials at the federal and local level who were in a position to influence policy affecting the mortgage giant. Issa has repeatedly reminded Committee Democrats that Bank of America officials had said they would turn over records on the VIP program – but only in response to a subpoena.

Towns, who received a mortgage loan from Countrywide but insists he was not part of the VIP program, has said he declined to launch an investigation because he does not want to interfere with an ongoing Justice Department probe into the matter.

-- This article was updated at 6:59 p.m. and at 7:44 a.m.