By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON -- Darrell Issa, chairman of the House committee leading numerous investigations of the Obama administration, found a new way to silence Democratic critics who question his actions: He shut off the microphones.
The California Republican had said that Lois Lerner, a key figure in the IRS targeting of tea party groups, would testify before his House Oversight and Government Reform panel on Wednesday, but instead she refused to answer questions. After Issa forced Lerner to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights no fewer than 10 times, the committee's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, raised his hand to speak.
Issa looked at Cummings, ignored him, adjourned the hearing and slammed down the gavel.
"Mr. Chairman? Mr. Chairman? Mr. Chairman?" Cummings bellowed.
Issa, who was gathering his papers, turned around. "We've adjourned," he said.
"Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this," Cummings fumed. "We're better than that as a committee. I have asked for a few minutes to ask a procedural -- "
Issa had stood up and now pressed a button in front of him that silenced Cummings' microphone.
But the Democrat, who has a booming voice, continued to speak, and the microphones went back on whenever Issa released his override button. Finally, Issa made a throat-slitting gesture to his staff and said, "Close it down." The sound system went dead.
Issa and fellow Republicans walked off to cries of "Shame!"
"Mr. Chairman," Cummings called after Issa, "what are you hiding?"
Said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., "He's taking the Fifth, Elijah."
Even by today's low standard of civility in Congress, calling a hearing and then not allowing minority lawmakers to utter a single word is rather unusual. But Issa, now in the fourth and final year of his chairmanship, is an unusual man.
Earlier in his capricious tenure, he banned Democratic witness Sandra Fluke from a panel about birth control, leaving an all-male slate of witnesses and giving his Republican Party a major embarrassment. His hearings have been chaotic affairs in which he talks over members of his panel, and he has often discredited his committee's investigations by making incendiary accusations that turn out to be unfounded.
His latest: speculating at a fundraiser last month that Pentagon assets were not mobilized to protect American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, when they were attacked in 2012 because Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "told them to stand down." But the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee found that there were no such orders. "Well," Issa told Fox News' Chris Wallace when pressed about this on Sunday, "the use in answering questions in a political fundraiser, that was in response to a question, the term 'stand down' is not used in some sort of an explicit way."
On the IRS, similarly, Issa had said that it was "the targeting of the president's political enemies effectively and lies about it," and that he would prove it was directed "out of Washington headquarters." But Issa has found no such proof.
Issa told Wallace on Sunday that Lerner's "attorney indicates now that she will testify" after refusing to do so at a hearing last year. The lawyer denied this, and Lerner did not testify Wednesday -- and that would have been the news, if not for Issa's sound-system antics. Because it was technically a continuation of last year's appearance by Lerner, Issa didn't allow opening statements, and he didn't let his Democratic counterpart speak after Lerner had declined to testify.
"Now you're turning me off?" Cummings said, incredulously, as Issa pressed the silencing button.
Issa must have realized it didn't look good for him to be standing and holding the mute button while the ranking Democrat spoke. He briefly sat and allowed Cummings to speak, but then stood and silenced the microphone again.
"I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America! I am tired of this!" Cummings shouted. "You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. ... It is absolutely un-American."
Issa gave Cummings a look of loathing and said, quietly, "We had a hearing. It is adjourned. I gave you an opportunity to ask a question. You have no question."
While Cummings continued to read his unamplified statement, Issa walked out and was asked by reporters in the hallway why he shut the sound. "He was actually slandering me at the moment that the mics did go off by claiming that this had not been a real investigation," Issa said. "This has been a bipartisan investigation."
Bipartisan: one party to protest, and the other party to unplug the microphones.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.