Planned Parenthood, Unplanned Hearing

Ann Richards was the state treasurer of Texas when she delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Her claim-to-fame was this line about vice president George H.W. Bush, then running for president: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Her indictment of Bush was so effective that he won the presidency in that election. Basically, she appealed to the convention's partisans, but her delivery came across to others as obnoxious. She helped inspire the Democrats to nominate her own Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as running mate to Michael Dukakis. But she also said,

When we pay billions for planes that won't fly, billions for tanks that won't fire, and billions for systems that won't work, that old dog won't hunt. And you don't have to be from Waco to know that when the Pentagon makes crooks rich and doesn't make America strong, that it's a bum deal.

The military complications are two-fold. First, Dukakis became a caricature ridiculed in the general election as he rode in a tank, standing up with his face partly visible from an oversize helmet. Second, Bentsen (remembered mainly for telling Dan Quayle in a VP debate, "I knew John Kennedy, and you're no John Kennedy") was what is now a rarity -- a national security Democrat. Indeed, the Texas Monthly had early-on criticized Bentsen, an Air Force bomber pilot in World War II, as part of the "military-industrial complex... whose solar plexus" is the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Bentsen served. As for all those unworkable military systems that troubled Richards, they did fine three years later in the first Gulf War that in a few days dislodged Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And Waco: That's where nearly five years after the 1988 convention, the newly-inaugurated President Bill Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993 authorized a military assault on the Branch Dravidians religious sect, resulting in the death of 76 men, women and children. Imagine if Reagan's AG, Ed Meese, had done that.

With the Richards family, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Cecile Richards, the oldest of Ann Richards' children, is a long-time "liberal activist," like her union organizer husband. Cecile worked in organizations "to counter the Christian right." She also was Nancy Pelosi's deputy chief of staff before graduating to the "progressive" American Votes, a front group for Democrats. A member of the liberal Ford Foundation's board of trustees, she seemed destined for stardom as a newly enfranchised paratrooper fighting against the war-against-women.

Mother Ann Richards had described herself as someone who in her early years "smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish." Early was prolonged. She was, perhaps too late in life, deeply concerned with women's health, a concern inherited by her daughter who apparently is quite healthy as president of Planned Parenthood, where she earns nearly $600,000 annually in pay and benefits, plus expense accounts, many sponsored parties, and for Planned Parenthood executives -- nice hotels and first class airfare. This is more than three times her prior compensation as a taxpayer-paid progressive activist on Capitol Hill

In the world of major nonprofits, Richards' compensation package is not excessive, but it an inviting target since Planned Parenthood receives Federal funds and is facing scrutiny for "harvesting baby tissue." The bulk of the Federal money involves Medicaid reimbursements. It's unclear whether proposed cuts in Federal funding would affect those reimbursements or discretionary funds, amounting to $60 million annually. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted hearings called because of the troubling videos that suggested PP violates Federal law by the way it supposedly performs abortions and adjusts the process to preserve and outsource baby organs. But the videos were unavailable, which is why pro-life columnist Mona Charen wonders why the Republican-dominated committee did not simply postpone the hearing. The answer is not surprising -- bad judgment on the part of the committee's majority, i.e., Republicans. Without the videos, sometimes obtuse questions instead focused on budgeting, revenue, expenses, salaries... sleepy topics compared to, well, selling baby parts.

At the hearing, a proper line of questioning would have been to lead Richards to concede that a recipient of Federal funding should meet certain guidelines, such as fiscal responsibility, and then, after various admissions, pursue her compensation, assorted PP entertainment and fundraising costs, and the fact that it has a surplus, so why does it need Federal funds? The questioning could have slowly probed the services PP provides, walking Richards through the budgeting process, to apportion what percentage of after-fundraising and after-core costs goes for "women's health" versus abortions.

There is this whole matter of women's health. Donald Trump says that Melania and Ivanka can attest that he adores women and will be the best president ever on women's health, certainly better, he says, than low-energy Jeb Bush who speaks Spanish and has a Spanish speaking wife. Bill Cosby is silent on the subject, but in the second Obama-Romney presidential debate in 2012, noted women's advocate Barack Obama explained that women rely on PP for mammograms. Perhaps he, in turn, was relying on what Cecile Richards told CNN the prior year, that a cut off in federal funding to PP would imperial access to mammograms. It turns out that PP doesn't do mammograms. It seems to many to be in the abortion business, and Federal funding could instead be rerouted to women's health centers. PP is capable of raising that shortfall via the private sector.

But all this (and more) was overshadowed by the drama of the aggressive and angry Republican men going after mild mannered Cecile. Charen is correct that the hearing, as it occurred, created television news lifts that highlighted this ganging up on Richards as her inquisitors alternately glared and shouted at her, interrupting her responses. Maybe this was good for the pro-life Republican base and Sean Hannity, but the audience needed to go beyond true believers and talk radio hosts. That's why there are television cameras at a hearing: the committee chairman and his colleagues presumably want to make news, the news that they want... on their issues, not bombast and drama.

The clumsiness has been a hallmark of hearings on Capitol Hill, especially now that the Republicans are in charge. Committee members are more interested in the limelight than in persuading the television audience of any abuses requiring reforms, so that viewers might support a legislative remedy. In the old days, there was a strategy in a committee, with the skilled chief counsel as the prime interrogator. Typically, this accomplished attorney was civil and respectful, courteous and polite, as he or she doggedly pursued a line of questioning, always flexible if the witness made a damaging admission that required unanticipated follow-up. One does not want to make the witness into a victim under siege.

In efficacious hearings, the U.S. Senators or Members of Congress are each allowed limited time for questions, or sometimes only senior members have a role. Regardless, they are scripted in cooperation with the chairman and chief legal counsel. A thoughtful strategy does not allow for repetition, contradictory questions or unintended softballs, or grandstanding, because the questions are asked in a sequence to build a case, to move to a conclusion. The idea is not for the politicians to become so enraged that they become the story, but for the story to be the story.

The same day of the hearing, it was revealed that the Secret Service leaked personal information about Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). Absent Chaffetz' ill conceived hearing, he could have played the victim to the Obama Administration, rather than she the victim in the Republicans "War on Women." Indeed, Democrats at the PP hearing were plenty demagogic, as they claimed Republicans were going after Richards because she was a woman, or that they did not want a woman to earn a high salary. The fact is Richards was treated just as well or as poorly as a male witness (committee members are increasingly and indiscriminately uncivil), and no one questioning her salary was concerned in any way about her gender.

Quickly consider the genesis of the hearing. The Center for Medical Progress had released videos, but wisely on a piecemeal basis to extend through multiple news cycles. This is part of a trap -- get PP or its supporters to deny, and then introduce new videos that take the story deeper. Among high propensity Republican primary voters, PP became a lightning rod. Donald Trump said PP did good things and he would not endorse a funds cutoff; within days, he had the opposite position. From a standpoint of the issue itself, Republicans would have been better off not politicizing it or making it a centerpiece of the presidential debate. That dialogue made an issue supposedly serious to them as a matter of morality, legality and policy seem like a political football.

At the outset of the release of the tape excerpts, Republicans should have pursued a slow, momentum-building approach to enlist commentators, op-ed columnists, university professors, medical experts, and even find credible people outside politics to react, in other words, to build consensus for an organic movement for defunding, whether partial or targeted. Never mention PP funding, let a groundswell against PP develop. But instead Republicans immediately called for defunding PP, even at the first video. They should have exploited the controversy for as long as possible, leveraging it to turn public sentiment against PP. They could have pursued a viral ad campaign of disenchanted pro-choice moderates who express their disillusionment with PP. But as usual, the Republicans played mainly to their base, and they ended up with another Congressional hearing that, at best, stalled on message and failed to reach new people for their cause. At worst, it seemed like another battle in their alleged war-against-women.