WASHINGTON, D.C. –(ENEWSPF)–February 12, 2016. Yesterday, Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky and the Select Panel Democratic Members sent a letter to Chair Marsha Blackburn to condemn the process by which the Panel has conducted its work to date and request a Panel vote on the Democrats’ proposed investigative plan and rules. Republicans have continued to exclude Democrats, persisted in sending out dangerous and overbroad document requests, and even failed to hold an initial organizational meeting.
In the letter the members write, “We write now to request that you set a date for an initial organizational meeting of the Panel, and, at that meeting, hold a Committee vote on the rules and the investigative agenda…The House Majority should not use this Panel as a political weapon to harass or intimidate healthcare providers, medical students, patients, and scientists who are working to increase our understanding of diseases that impact all Americans. The complete exclusion of Democrats and the lack of any investigative plan or rules to guide our work are extremely problematic. Taxpayer-funded congressional investigations must further legitimate legislative aims. None have been articulated or explained with regard to this Panel’s work.”
The Democratic members’ proposed rules would help safeguard the privacy and safety of individuals asked to cooperate in the Panel’s work while their investigative plan would include the following:
- The benefits of fetal tissue research.
- The range of critical, life-saving services that reproductive healthcare professionals provide.
- What is really needed to protect infant lives, including the full range of issues that impact the health of women and their families before, during, and after a pregnancy.
- The conspiracy to attack women’s healthcare, including how false “evidence” like the deceptively-edited videos manufactured by the Center for Medical Progress affects public policy and harms women’s access to healthcare.
- Protecting patients and healthcare providers from violence, harassment, and intimidation.
The letter was signed by Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Jerry Nadler, Diana DeGette, Jackie Speier, Suzan DelBene, and Bonnie Watson Coleman.
The full text of the letter is available below. The full text of the proposed Democratic investigative plan and Select Panel rules are available online, by clicking on the links below or can be emailed upon request.
Dear Madam Chair:
We are disappointed that you elected not to respond to the concerns raised in our letter last month regarding the dangerous actions of the Panel’s Majority to date, and our request for an investigative plan and clear rules to guide our work. We write now to request that you set a date for an initial organizational meeting of the Panel and, at that meeting, hold a Panel vote on the rules and the investigative agenda outlined below and attached to this letter.
The House Majority should not use this Panel as a political weapon to harass or intimidate healthcare providers, medical students, patients, and the scientists who are working to increase our understanding of diseases that impact all Americans. The complete exclusion of Democrats and the lack of any investigative plan or rules to guide our work are extremely problematic. Taxpayer-funded congressional investigations must further legitimate legislative aims. None have been articulated or explained with regard to this Panel’s work.
Exclusion of Democrats and Continued, Dangerous Demands
In your January 22 letter, you stated that our staff has been invited to “comment on, to improve, or to reconfigure the language of any and all of the Panel’s document requests.” In fact, we have been given copies of those document requests only after they have already been sent out, making the invitation to provide feedback a hollow one at best. Moreover, the suggestions that we have made – most importantly, that you not request the names of researchers, healthcare providers, residents or medical students, and patients – have been ignored.
After the first letters went out in December, we asked for a meeting to discuss what the Panel would be investigating and how the document requests fit into that plan. To date, your staff has refused to explain what allegations or issues are being investigated, why particular universities, healthcare providers, or other entities have been contacted, and how the information being requested fits into the investigation. We have asked repeatedly to participate but have been excluded from discussions with recipients of the document requests.
During a meeting with your staff on January 15, we asked that the Panel not seek the names or other personally identifiable information of researchers, healthcare providers, residents and medical students, or patients and that, before issuing more requests or demanding compliance with the existing requests, the Panel put in place clear rules to protect individual privacy and security.
Six days later, you sent out twelve more document requests to public and private universities seeking, among other things, organizational charts identifying clinical and supervisory personnel involved in fetal tissue research. It is our further understanding that, even after we made that request, your staff has threatened compulsory process if recipients do not provide the information that you have requested.
Rules to Ensure Accountability and Protect Privacy and Security
Under H. Res. 461, the Select Panel must operate within the rules of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Those rules do not provide any guidance on how your proposed “working groups” or “working sessions” will be managed or how the Panel will safeguard any sensitive information that is requested or gathered in the course of our investigation.
Some of the information that you have requested – for example, names and communications of medical students, healthcare providers, and their patients – is the type of information that is generally protected from disclosure by state and federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
It is not clear why this particular information is being requested and how, if at all, it furthers any legitimate functions of the Panel. At the same time, the information that you are requesting – whether released to the public by accident or on purpose – puts people’s privacy and safety at risk. There are no rules currently in place that prevent members or staff of the Select Panel from releasing this information once it is received.
We think it is critically important for the Panel to adopt rules that prevent collection of certain information and otherwise allow for the redaction of personally identifiable information before it is produced. Attached to this letter is our proposal, which will help limit and safeguard any sensitive information that we receive. Adopting and publishing these rules may also help obtain voluntary cooperation in the Panel’s work, thereby eliminating the need for and expense of compulsory process.
Our proposed rules also set out a process for convening the “working group” or “working sessions” that you are proposing. Existing House and Committee rules ensure equitable treatment of all members. They provide witnesses with a basic understanding of their rights and what to expect when called to appear. The rules also require transparency and public accountability, and provide very limited circumstances – instances where matters being discussed would endanger national security, compromise sensitive law enforcement information, risk defaming any person, or violate a rule of the House – for conducting committee business in non-public, executive sessions. The resolution creating this Panel calls for a full and complete investigation, a report on our work, and vests us with deposition authority. These are all hallmarks of a process governed by clear rules, not an ad hoc, informal process that can be operated as suits the unilateral interests of the Chair.
Therefore, to the extent that you plan to conduct this investigation through “working groups” or “working sessions,” we believe that it is incumbent on you to set out the specific rules that would govern any such meetings. Those rules should be agreed to in advance by the Ranking Member, and provided to all of the Panel’s members and individuals being asked to appear. If the Chair and Ranking Member cannot reach agreement on rules to govern any particular working group or session, the Panel has ample tools at its disposal under existing House and Committee rules and should use those instead.
Our rules also ask that you seek concurrence of the Ranking Member or a Panel vote before issuing subpoenas. We understand that the resolution establishing the Panel grants you unilateral subpoena authority. Until recent rule changes made under Republican leadership, issuance of a subpoena required agreement of a chair and ranking member or committee vote. Those basic steps — which governed Democrats and Republicans alike — ensured sufficient, good-faith efforts to obtain voluntary compliance with congressional requests and adequate debate and discussion before issuance of a subpoena. For these reasons, we urge you to seek the concurrence of the Ranking Member or a vote of the Select Panel before issuing any subpoenas.
We believe that our proposal ensures a more transparent and balanced investigation, which is something that the American taxpayers deserve. We are hopeful that you and the other Republican Members of the Panel will support these rules and ask that you hold a vote at the Panel’s initial business meeting.
Proposed Investigative Plan
The resolution creating the Select Investigative Panel sets out several broad categories of potential inquiry. Thus far, invoking this resolution as empowering the Panel “to investigate issues related to fetal tissue research” but without any further explanation of what we are investigating, you have issued thirty two document requests.
These letters seek information about how fetal tissue is obtained and are clearly designed to pursue the inflammatory allegations that have sprung out of the deceptively-edited videos of anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who is now under indictment by a Texas grand jury. Not a single request asks why fetal tissue research is important, or how it has helped advance our understanding and treatment of a range of diseases and conditions. Any objective and balanced inquiry into fetal tissue research must consider its past and possible future benefits. Yet your initial actions indicate that the Panel Majority plans to ignore these critical questions.
We have asked repeatedly that you share your investigative plan and work with us to create a balanced approach that also reflects meaningful involvement and input of the Panel’s Democratic Members. To date, you have refused to do so. We are therefore attaching our proposed plan.
We understand that Republican and Democratic Members may not agree regarding the topics that this Panel should address. But taxpayer-funded congressional investigations should strike an appropriate balance between the interests of its Majority and Minority Members, who may be pursing different priorities on behalf of the Americans that we serve. We therefore ask that you include our proposal in an overall investigative plan for the Panel and for a vote on the plan at the Panel’s initial business meeting.
We look forward to discussing our proposals with you in the near future.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-191, 110 Stat. 1938 (1996); Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g. While these laws allow disclosure in certain limited circumstances, any such disclosure is usually permitted only after significant preconditions have been met – including, for example, notice to affected parties or entry of appropriate protective orders before the protected information is disclosed. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 164.512(e)(1)(ii).
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