Democrat scolds Republicans during testy Oversight hearing on gas prices

The top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee accused Republicans of undermining the integrity of the panel with unfair attacks on Obama administration officials over offshore drilling and gas prices. 

The tussle between Democrats and Republicans on the committee comes as the rhetoric about offshore drilling is reaching a fever pitch amid concern about high gas prices.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, accused Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of suggesting that a top Interior official was lying under oath at a hearing on the effect of the administration’s regulations on gas prices.

Issa cut off Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes after asking about litigation regarding the Obama administration’s moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which the Interior Department lifted last year.

“We’ll move on because I don’t want you to say anything that ultimately will be bad considering you’re under oath,” Issa, who swore in the administration witnesses before the hearing, said.

Cummings said Issa’s comment was akin to accusing Hayes of lying.

“You basically implied that this gentleman may be lying,” Cummings said.

“The gentleman should be afforded the opportunity to answer the question. This is about the integrity of this committee. I am not going to allow people who come in here to be called all kinds of names and not be treated fairly.”

Issa maintained that he did not accuse Hayes of lying and ignored Cummings’ request to allow Hayes to respond. He then called upon Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) to ask Hayes questions.

Speier gave Hayes the opportunity to respond to Issa’s questions, which centered on a ruling by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman that the administration’s initial moratorium was overly broad.

Hayes said the Interior Department lifted its Gulf deepwater drilling moratorium “after a series of public meetings in which we concluded that the basis for the moratorium was satisfied.”

The “litigation record speaks for itself,” he added.

In an interview with The Hill after the hearing, Cummings said Republicans are unfairly attacking administration witnesses like Hayes and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who also testified at Tuesday hearing.

“These are people that are working hard, giving their very, very best to improve the lives of the American people,” Cummings said. “They are public servants. Too often I’ve heard here lately public servants being criticized over and over again.”

Cummings said he has “seen people’s lives destroyed” because of things that happened in courtrooms during his time as a lawyer.

“I’ve always believed, and I said this from the beginning, that when people come before this committee we’ve got to keep in mind that families are watching them on C-Span, their colleagues are watching and they have to go home after this,” he said.

“All I was saying is that he wanted to answer the question. Let him answer it. Give him an opportunity,” Cummings continued. “He wasn’t afraid to answer the question. He just wasn’t permitted to answer it. I didn’t want to leave that hanging.”

Republicans on the committee sparred with Jackson and Hayes throughout the hearing Tuesday.

“The problem is [EPA’s] overzealous legislation that’s killing our jobs,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). “It’s killing our industry. It’s killing our economy.”

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) slammed Hayes for saying that there are millions of acres of public land that have been leased by oil companies, but have not yet seen production.

Mack argued that oil companies have not produced on the land because it does not have adequate oil supplies.

“If you offer them crap, you get crap and that is just the way it is,” Mack said. “If you say that you can drill in areas where there’s no oil to drill.”

Hayes said that much of the land is “prime oil and gas territory.” The administration is developing a fee structure that would put pressure on oil and gas companies to develop their leases, a policy known as “use it, or lose it.”

Democrats and Republicans on the committee released dueling reports ahead of Tuesday hearings that sum up their positions on high gas prices.

The Republican report accuses the Obama administration of conducting a campaign “to block carbon-based energy extraction, to tax it, and to otherwise increase its cost of us.” The report calls for a speedy expansion of domestic oil and gas production.

The Democrats report blames high gas prices on potential speculation in the oil markets and notes that more drilling will not lower gas prices in the near term.