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House Republicans question Planned Parenthood president – and her salary

Democrats allege sexism at play in line of inquiry and revive claim of a Republican ‘war on women’

WASHINGTON — Some of the first questions asked of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards during her first appearance before Congress since the women’s health organization became embroiled in controversy, were not in fact about the health care provider's practices but about its boss's salary.

“Your compensation in 2009 was $353,000. Is that correct?” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, began. “Congratulations, it was,” Chaffetz continued when Richards said she didn’t have the exact figures. He went on to note that Richards’ salary had risen to $520,000 since then.

It was the beginning of an hours-long hearing in which GOP members on the committee aggressively grilled Richards on the organization’s use of federal dollars, often talking over her and giving her little time to answer their rapid-fire questions. Democratic members said Richards’s rough treatment corroborated a view that Republicans were waging “a war on women” and bent on eroding abortion rights in the United States for ideological reasons. 

“I would like to register my opposition and objection to the chairman beating up on a woman, on our witness today for making a good salary,” said Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “In the entire time I’ve been in Congress, I’ve never seen a witness beaten up and questioned about their salary…I find it discriminatory and inappropriate.”

In recent weeks, conservative members of Congress have led a drive to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding after a series of undercover videos filmed by antiabortion activists were released showing high-level officials discussing reimbursement for fetal tissue donations. Critics allege that the videos offer proof that Planned Parenthood was profiting from the sale of fetal body parts. But supporters of Planned Parenthood contend that the footage has been highly edited, and misrepresents the policies of the women's health organization.

Although a government shutdown over the issue no longer looks likely, four separate congressional inquiries are under way investigating Planned Parenthood's practices, with another select committee to be impaneled in the coming weeks.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, said in a fiery rebuttal that it was particularly hypocritical for Republicans to place Planned Parenthood under a microscope and take Richards to task over her salary when they had never taken an interest in the hefty compensations of executives at big banks, drug companies and defense contractors, who had all engaged in law-breaking. 

“Last month, Lockheed Martin was fined millions of dollars for using taxpayer funds to lobby Congress to maintain its hold on a multibillion dollar Pentagon contract. Lockheed’s CEO received a stunning $33 million last year,” Cummings railed.  “Ms. Richards, do you know if there has been any investigation or any effort  — any — to eliminate Lockheed’s federal funding?”

“It sounds like there hasn’t been,” Richards answered.

“You got it, of course there wasn’t!” Cummings said. “These are huge companies that are actually guilty of breaking the law and their CEOs make millions of dollars — Republicans never criticize the salaries of their CEOs or they never try to strip their federal funding, their government subsidies or their tax breaks.”

GOP members batted back against the accusations of sexism and said they were entitled to a full accounting of how Planned Parenthood was using its $500 million in state and federal funds, through grants and Medicaid reimbursements.

“Surely you don’t expect us to be easier on you because you’re a woman?” Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., asked Richards, noting that he had seen male witnesses subjected to much tougher questioning in congressional hearings.

Chaffetz said it was clear to him, from poring over Planned Parenthood’s finances, that the organization did not require federal subsidies and that in his view, taxpayer dollars were better spent elsewhere. He went on to criticize the organization for lavish travel expenses, parties featuring chocolate fountains and the hip-hop group Salt N’ Pepa, and sending grants overseas for women’s health.  

“The question before us is does this organization, does Planned Parenthood really need federal subsidy? Does it need federal dollars?” he said. “What I don’t want to become numb to is wasting those taxpayer dollars.”

Richards denied that the organization had done anything wrong, noting repeatedly that it was often the only health care provider for low-income women in underserved areas. 

“The latest smear campaign is based on efforts by our opponents to entrap our doctors and clinicians into breaking the law — and once again our opponents failed,” Richards said. 

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