WASHINGTON - House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa's investigation into the foreclosure crisis is off to a rough start. On Wednesday, the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, Elijah Cummings (Md.), planned to use his opening statement to charge Issa with blocking the summoning of a witness from JPMorgan Chase to explain the bank's role in alleged foreclosure fraud.
Cummings never got the chance. In a move that diverged radically from congressional custom, Issa (Calif.) refused to allow the ranking Democrat to offer his statement, deciding instead to bar all opening statements from the assembled committee members, himself included.
"I know the tradition is that we hold the witnesses here for sometimes an hour through opening statements," Issa said Wednesday. "That is a tradition that I intend to break."
On Tuesday, at the organizational meeting to prepare for the hearing, Cummings had expressed concern that he might be barred from speaking. "Will you give me notice when you and I are not going to speak. I don't want to staff to spend all night preparing a memorable opening statement and then we don't get to give it," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
"I will commit to you that -- although when they're put in the record, sometimes it looks even better -- I will commit to you that if we believe a hearing has a limited time, we will notice that as quickly as we notice the committee. Because, as quickly as we notice the committee, I think we would be able to give you an anticipated start time and finish time for our witness," Issa responded.
A spokesman for Cummings told HuffPost that the Maryland Democrat was alerted at 8:53 a.m. Wednesday that he wouldn't be allowed to deliver the statement. The hearing was scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., but was slightly delayed due to wrangling over the opening statements.
"If the minority is going to judge the value and success of a hearing based on their political ability to bloviate at the start of it, then so be it. We're of the mindset that Congress should listen more and talk less," said Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella, who confirmed that the decision was only made this morning and said Cummings was alerted to it immediately.
Cummings and Issa have been engaged in an ongoing dispute over the scope of the investigation, with Cummings insisting on a greater focus on possible Wall Street malfeasance and Issa focusing on the failure of the Obama administration's anti-foreclosure efforts.
"I asked you to invite JPMorgan, one of the largest mortgage servicers in the country. I also ask that this letter be put into the record," Cummings had planned to say, referring to a letter he sent Monday to Issa regarding an industry witness.
"I asked for JP Morgan because this company has been implicated in a number of recent scandals, including improperly foreclosing on the homes of military service members deployed overseas. These young men and women are risking their lives for our country. But the company admitted last week to improperly charging them millions of dollars and taking their homes without justification, leaving their loved ones stranded and distressed," Cummings planned to say, according to his prepared remarks.
"I can't imagine an investigation more worthy of this committee's time and energy," he would have added. "You did not want the industry witness to testify here today."
Bardella said that Cummings' concern is overblown and that there is time in the future to call industry witnesses. "The chairman has already said that this was the first, not the last, hearing looking at a lot of these issues that fall under the umbrella of TARP," he said. "The chairman hasn't said he won't do some of those things. This hearing was announced. They put their letter in after the hearing was announced. We have two years ahead of us. I don't think the issue of TARP and the foreclosure crisis will be going away anytime soon."