STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE: Mass. congresswoman pulls back curtain on divided U.S. House
As originally appearing in The Valley Dispatch



State House News Service

BOSTON — Months before a sit-in in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan did not know the Melrose Democrat who rallied her party to challenge one of the most basic aspects of Republican leadership this summer: control over the House floor.

Right before the New Hampshire presidential primary last winter, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark was waiting for a plane from Washington, D.C., to Boston when she saw the Wisconsin leader of the U.S. House, and engaged him in friendly conversation, introducing herself as “Katherine Clark from Massachusetts,” she told a New England Council breakfast Monday.

After discussion of Clark’s plans to campaign in New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton and Ryan’s attempts to steer her toward the Republican side, Ryan asked, “So Katherine, what do you do?”

Clark, who has since become one of Ryan’s more high-profile critics, told the House speaker she was a member of Congress, leading to an “awkward conversation” where he said he had not noticed the pin she wore identifying herself as a congresswoman.

“He was horrified,” Clark told reporters after her breakfast speech. “He really just sort of started sputtering, and he said to his staff member who was standing there, ‘Did you know she was in Congress?’ And she said, ‘Well, I saw her pin.'”

Elected in a special race in 2013 to fill U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s former seat, Clark this summer spurred Democrats to hold a sit-in on the floor, demanding votes on measures aimed at curbing gun violence. Ryan said the June sit-in was “nothing more than a publicity stunt,” and he was looking at “all options for consequences to make sure that we can get Congress working again.”

Clark said some members of the Republican caucus want to punish Democrats for disrupting the chamber, while more moderate members don’t want to return attention to the widely publicized sit-in.

“They’re saying they will bring up something again this week. And we’ll see what it is. And my attitude is: bring it on. If you are going to spend your time having a vote on sanctioning us before you have a vote on the substantive underlying bills, shame on you,” Clark said, eliciting applause from the non-partisan business group.

A senior House Republican aide said any potential action would not be punishment but rather an effort at ensuring order in the House, and said no decisions have been made on timing.

Gun owners are granted bedrock rights to bear arms through the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and national laws about selling firearms are the subject of fierce debate. As mass shootings have become more commonplace, gun rights activists have advocated for a more armed citizenry to repulse shooters, while gun control advocates have pushed for new limits on gun sales, such as mandatory background checks, to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

Clark said she was “angry” and “upset” when Ryan presided over a moment of silence for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., rather than abiding by the tradition of allowing Congresswoman Corinne Brown, who represents the district, to deliver remarks.

“Not too many people were very interested in doing something. They want to do something, but they don’t really want to be too disruptive,” said Clark. She said Congressman John Lewis, a black civil rights activist who protested racist Jim Crow segregation with lunch-counter sit-ins before his election to Congress, agreed Democrats should do something “dramatic,” and proposed a sit-in.

“We upset the leadership — probably on both sides, but certainly on the Republican side,” said Clark. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, responded to possible sanctions with identical pugilistic language, reportedly saying, “Bring it on.”

Congress has been marked in recent years by deep political division, perhaps reflecting the mood of the electorate.

“We’re not really dysfunctional as much as we’ve become obstructionists,” Clark said, taking particular umbrage at the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, where she is a member.

Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, has used his subpoena powers to seek records from Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined an investigation into whether oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. had misled the public about climate change.

Smith defended his actions in a letter to The Boston Globe, saying the subpoena was sought to protect private industries’ ability to pursue scientific inquiries without government intrusion.

“The attorneys general are seeking decades’ worth of communications from university researchers, nonprofit organizations, and individuals with whose research or opinions they disagree,” wrote Smith, who said the committee wants to know whether the investigations “adversely affect federally funded scientific research.” He wrote, “Scientists must be allowed to pursue research in accordance with scientific principles without fear of reprisal, harassment, or undue burden.”

Clark said Smith has issued 25 subpoenas in a committee that had only previously issued one since its creation in the 1950s.

“We should be very concerned that Congress is reaching in to our state’s attorney general’s office, and demanding that we see something — the investigation, that we have no jurisdiction,” said Clark, calling it a “dangerous precedent” and “overreach.” She said, “We need to be very careful when Congress gets into the business of picking an industry to try and protect from investigations of state law.”

Clark, who served in the House and Senate dominated by Democrats in Massachusetts before heading to Washington D.C., said she was shocked to see Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, persuading members on the floor to change their votes, to oppose a Democrat-backed amendment providing gay and transgender people antidiscrimination protections when working for federal contractors.

“To watch it happen in real time on the floor out in the open was pretty shocking,” Clark said.

Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat who sponsored the amendment to an infrastructure bill, announced the legislation subsequently passed with 43 Republican votes.

Clark told reporters that after failing to recognize her at the airport, Ryan sent her a nice handwritten note, calling her his “new Democratic best friend.”

“I have tried our friendship since then,” Clark said.

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