Long-serving Florida Republican Cliff Stearns is suddenly in the spotlight for his investigations into Planned Parenthood and Solyndra.
When the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced it would be end its relationship Planned Parenthood, it pointed to an investigation into the group launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The Florida Republican has a relatively low profile on the national stage, despite serving in Congress for more than two decades. That's all changing now. While many expected Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to be a major thorn in Democrats' and President Obama's side, Stearns -- long a quiet but persistent crusader for his chosen causes -- has in fact been a bigger mover and shaker, and he now finds himself at two of the biggest controversies in Washington. Here's a primer on the representative.
He's a veteran and a businessman. Stearns, a Washington, D.C., native, went to George Washington University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in electrical engineering, then served in the military for four years and reached the rank of captain. After leaving the Air Force, he became a hotelier and restaurateur in Ocala, Florida, near Gainesville. He has three sons. Stearns was elected in 1988, pulling off an upset win over a Democrat who was favored to win the open seat.
He really doesn't like abortion. Stearns' investigation into Planned Parenthood focuses on whether the organization used federal funds to pay for abortions, which would be illegal (one school of thought argues that it's irrelevant, because the organization does conduct abortions, and money is fungible -- but that's another question). This is his second charge against the group: he was instrumental in a 2011 push to cut off all federal funding to it. "This is when we're going to defund Planned Parenthood," Stearns told the Los Angeles Times almost exactly a year ago. "Now is the season for us to do this." But the push eventually failed because of the opposition of Senate Democrats. He's been a major backer of pregnancy resource centers, a sort of pro-life alternative to Planned Parenthood clinics, which counsel against abortion. He introduced a bill in January 2011 that would stipulate that federal family-planning money go only to organizations that show women sonograms of fetuses and advise against ending pregnancies.
But he's otherwise a big privacy advocate. Stearns was a leading backer of the legislation that created the anti-telemarketing Do-Not-Call list. In January, he joined with liberal Democrat Henry Waxman of California to send a sharp letter to Google questioning the company's privacy practices. At other times in his career, he's supported looser gun controls, and he's a member of the Tea Party Caucus.
He's been busy digging into the Solyndra case. In some ways, the blow-up over Planned Parenthood is a distraction from Stearns' main current project, investigating Solyndra. That's the increasingly noisy controversy over a green energy company that received government grants and had close ties to the Obama administration. Stearns' committee is investigating whether White House officials improperly intervened or if they knew that the company was on the brink of insolvency before its eventual bankruptcy filing. The company's failure is a cause celebre in conservative circles, and the GOP is planning to use it as a bludgeon against the president during the election because it's a perfect trifecta: government involvement in the private sector, apparent administration incompetence, and a whiff of corruption. That makes Stearns an important figure in House Republican ranks.
He's no stranger to hot-button issues. Stearns has been involved for years in various sports-related matters. As chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Trade, he held hearings into steroids in baseball, and later called for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to resign. He also criticized the NCAA for failing to crack down on shady recruitment practices for college athletes. Stearns has repeatedly authored legislation to cut the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has also flirted with conspiracy theories, and in 1999 attended a Washington screening of a documentary alleging government misconduct in the 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas. "I don't visualize it as propaganda," Stearns said of the film in 1999. "I visualize it as an attempt to bring questions to the American people."
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