Hearing raises concern about using committee resources before vote

Vulnerable freshman Democratic lawmaker Rep. Steve Driehaus (Ohio) is set to hold a field hearing in his Cincinnati-based district on Monday, but it hasn't come without a sizable dose of controversy.

Questions of political impropriety raised by Republicans on the Oversight and Government Reform committee on the timing of Driehaus's hearing threw a monkey wrench into the recently noticed plan to hold the field hearing on the Census and hard-to-count areas.

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Republicans cried foul that Driehaus, who requested the hearing over a year ago, secured it less than two months before his contested primary, set for May 4. 

And last Tuesday, the committee’s ranking GOP Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) requested in writing that Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) cancel the hearing that “puts the Committee in the untenable position of appearing to use taxpayer dollars and specifically Committee resources to influence the outcome of an election.” 

Driehaus responded in kind, accusing the unabashed Californian of “ignorance” on the Census in Cincinnati, and being “irresponsible, unwarranted and offensive” by implying “malfeasance by (Driehaus) or other members of the committee.”

But, Republicans remained wary of the timing of the notice of the hearing’s release, one week after Driehaus’s primary opponent filed his papers to challenge the first-term congressman. 

Driehaus's rematch with former GOP lawmaker Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) remains one of the closely watched contests in 2010.

Though Democratic operatives remain positive that Driehaus will win the primary -- his opponent, Eric Wilson, garnered 85 votes in 2008 when he ran as a write-in candidate in the general election -- his race is considered a toss-up by the congressional prognosticating publication Cook's Political Report.

But Driehaus spokesperson Tim Mulvey told The Hill that scoring political points played no role in the timing of the field hearing. 

“(Driehaus’s primary competitor) announced his intention to get into the race a long, long time ago. We’ve known. It took a while for the hearing to be finalized, but it has been in the works for a long time and I think actually the announcement was delayed because Chairman Towns had a field hearing of the full committee,” Mulvey said.  

On Thursday Issa and Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) reached an agreement that would allow Driehaus’s hearing to go forward, but that did not satisfy the lawmaker, still livid from the accusations days earlier.

According to witnesses of Thursday afternoon’s heated exchange, Driehaus berated Issa for “impugning his integrity” by calling into question the vulnerable Democrat’s motives in holding a hearing.

“Issa pointed out that this is calling into question a very questionable hearing, Steve, you and I both know that a field hearing are a way of getting a member free publicity, you’re not fooling anybody. You are a freshman, the chairman and I worked out a very fair deal and it’s done, but if you want to go down this path. ... Dreihaus continued to say ‘this is my reputation, how dare you call into question the integrity of this field hearing,'” a witness privy to the exchange told The Hill.

At which point, Driehaus let the point drop “for now,” according to the source.  

Though the House bars members from using their “franking privileges,” i.e. free mailers sent out to constituents 90 days before a primary or general election, the rules don’t apply to using committee resources, an aide explained.

Issa emphasized that point in his Tuesday letter to Towns.

“In addition to prohibiting mass mailings, email, audio and video productions and handouts, Members are specifically prohibited from using official resource to host a town hall meeting,” Issa wrote noting his disturbance that “taxpayer dollars will be used to host a hearing in the First District of Ohio.”

Each committee adopts their own policy on holding field hearings during campaign periods; and Republicans on the oversight panel eventually signed off on a less than two-month cushion, that other committees tend to follow, so that Driehaus could have his hearing.

Ultimately Issa and Towns agreed that members could hold field hearings up until 45 days from a primary or general election. In case of emergencies, both top-ranking lawmakers would have to sign off on a last-minute request.

And so, Driehaus’s field hearing on “Hard to Count Populations with Special Living Conditions” is set for Monday.

Information Policy, Census and National Archives subcommittee chairman Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who will gavel the hearing, and Driehaus may be the only two lawmakers to participate in the out-of-town forum.

They will hear from Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, Acting Deputy Census Director Thomas Mesenbourg and a handful of community activists.

“Cincinnati’s a good place to highlight hard-to-count places, which is why Congressman Driehaus has been pushing to have the field hearing there for 13 months, really,” Mulvey said.