The personal attacks, shouting matches and made-for-TV stunts on full display in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment proceedings this week were actually decades in the making.
Tasked on paper with overseeing the federal courts, the committee — now in the midst of debating, then voting out articles of impeachment — has long been at the heart of the nation’s culture wars. Its stage draws partisans eager for star turns — and is radioactive for more moderate or vulnerable lawmakers from swing districts.
“Everybody on the Republican side is pro-life and pro-gun, and everyone on the Democratic side is pro-choice and pro-gun control — and you only get those members on the committee,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who won a third term with more than 60 percent of the vote last year. “On Foreign Affairs, on other committees, it’s a whole different story. But on Judiciary, you want members who you know how they’re going to fall on tough social issues. And impeachment is another of those issues where you have to draw a line in the sand.”
In contrast to the more secretive, buttoned-up culture of the Intelligence Committee that debated the impeachment of President Donald Trump for the last several weeks, the Judiciary Committee’s structure, membership and jurisdiction over a wide swath of constitutional issues has long made it a premiere venue for bare-knuckle fights over the nation’s most contentious issues.
“We get into passionate debates and take the hard votes, and most of us are in districts we can take those positions,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).
Over the committee’s history, lawmakers have clashed over everything from affirmative action to poll taxes to the death penalty. Before it took a pivotal role in the impeachment proceedings of Richard M. Nixon, the panel was consumed with fiery debates over civil rights, crime and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Many members, including those with presidential aspirations of their own, are drawn to such high-profile fights. But leadership in both parties has at times struggled to find representatives willing to pass up assignments on committees that build highways or bring home jobs in order to promote sometimes abstract values and partisan ideals.
“A lot of members don’t want to be on that committee, and it’s difficult to place people on it,” said John Lawrence, a congressional historian and former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Unlike other committees, you can’t deliver specific benefits to your constituents since you’re only debating these rather broad issues. And we always wanted to make sure they understood that they might be asked to pass some very controversial bills.”
Again and again, dating back at least to Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in the early 1970s, those controversial bills and debates have centered around abortion. That dynamic is also true in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where abortion has become a litmus test for judicial nominees.
The late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who served on House Judiciary for decades, used the committee as a platform to limit access to the procedure, eventually banning public funding for abortions through an amendment to annual spending bills that still bears his name.
The committee also saw bitter fights over so-called partial birth abortion throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2002, after Judiciary voted to ban a particular method of surgical abortion used later in pregnancy, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) levied a charge that’s become commonplace today: “This is about creating a 30-second ad opportunity for the November elections.”
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the committee debated several bills that never became law — including bans on abortion after 20 or 22 weeks of pregnancy or as early as a heartbeat can be detected, along with proposals to defund Planned Parenthood and grant legal rights to fetuses. When Democrats were in charge, the committee debated loosening restrictions on abortion, writing Roe into law and expanding access to the procedure for low-income women.
“No matter who controls the House, the Judiciary Committee has been a place where the majority can go to get its abortion wish list passed even if it they know it will die in the Senate or get a presidential veto,” said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University who focuses on abortion law.
In 2015, lawmakers on the committee spent months investigating Planned Parenthood following the release of heavily edited sting videos that claimed to portray the organization as profiting from the sale of fetal tissue from abortions. Then-chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said it was Judiciary’s duty to “protect human life and preserve the conscience of America.” Planned Parenthood denied the charges and and numerous investigations into the organization’s practices found no wrongdoing.
This summer, at a Judiciary hearing on the wave of new abortion bans and restrictions passed by conservative-led states, Chairman Jerry Nadler railed against his GOP colleagues, calling them “arrogant” for wanting to “impose” their anti-abortion views on the rest of the country. Ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) shot back that Nadler’s remarks were the “height of hypocrisy.”
For most of the committee’s history, there was some crossover, with certain Democrats opposed to the procedure on religious grounds and some Republicans opposed to government overreach into the medical realm. But that’s largely evaporated in recent years.
“Both the Democratic party and the Republican party have hewed much more closely to what social movements want,” Ziegler said. “It used to be that the pro-choice movement and the pro-life movement were fighting to appeal to what they called ‘the mushy middle.’ But recently, both sides have been throwing down the gauntlet and not really focusing on how those issues poll with most Americans.”
Ziegler said the dynamic has been evident in Republicans’ efforts to strip taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood and Democrats’ efforts to make taxpayer funding available to pay for abortions directly — positions multiple polls show most of the country does not support.
“The Judiciary Committee attracts people who are passionate about these issues, so you’re going to have people who are strong on a woman’s right to choose and you’re going to have people who are against that and think the government should decide,” Cohen said. “That’s part of why I chose Judiciary — I think a woman’s right to choose is extremely important.”
In the context of impeachment, the committee is tasked not with nailing down what Trump and his administration did, but with determining whether those acts rise to the level of an impeachable offense. This assignment, and the national spotlight that comes with it, has made the House’s most ambitious and vocal members just as eager for a spot on the committee as they were decades earlier.
“Before Watergate, there weren’t a lot of hearings that were televised other than the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s,” Lawrence said. “But suddenly the Judiciary Committee people became rock stars because they were on TV. Most of the country had never before seen Congress doing its work like that. So we had a lot of young attorneys who came to Congress after that inspired by Watergate and wanting to get on that committee. It was place to be in the 1970s.”
Today, with the House vote to impeach a foregone conclusion and the Senate voting to remove Trump from office a near-impossibility, congressional scholars say it’s more useful to think of this week’s proceedings as de facto campaign rallies.
“There’s no way President Trump is not impeached but there’s also no way he is removed from office,” said John Malcolm, the Vice President of the Institute for Constitutional Government at the Heritage Foundation. “These hearings aren’t changing anyone’s mind, but this is all playing into 2020 election politics, with each side is making its case to its base.”
Democrats ahead of the markup of articles of impeachment insisted that they’re working to maintain a serious atmosphere despite the committee’s reputation and the charged environment.
“If [Republicans] want to look like they just think this is a big game and be disruptive and not allow the process to work, that’s a problem for them,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) a Judiciary Committee member and the leader of the Progressive Caucus. “We’re not going to respond to everything, but we’re not going to respond to nothing. We’ll do the best we can … to gavel them and not tolerate their nonsense. They’ll have to knock it off.”
House conservatives respond that it’s their duty to put up a fight.
“You have a bunch of attorneys and a bunch of prosecutors who are used to going toe-to-toe with other counsel,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a former leader of the Freedom Caucus. “It’s an art. And certainly, my Judiciary colleagues are well-equipped.”
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.
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