Watching the watchdog: Cummings grows into oversight role

As top Democrat on the House oversight committee, the Baltimore lawmaker is embroiled in partisan battles

  • U. S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, 7th Md., is the highest ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. Cummings is pictured in his Washington D.C. congressional office.
U. S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, 7th Md., is the highest ranking… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
June 11, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, was quizzing an Obama administration official on the price of gasoline at a hearing last month when he suddenly cut off the witness. Issa pointed out that the man was under oath and said he didn't want him to say something "bad."

The unusual comment came more than an hour into the hearing — only a handful of committee members were still in the room — but nevertheless caught the attention of the lawmaker sitting directly to Issa's right. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings spoke up and, within seconds, he and Issa were talking over each other.

"You've basically implied that this gentleman may be lying," said Cummings, his voice shaking with anger. "Let me tell you something. It's about the integrity of this committee, and I've said it from the beginning: I am not going to allow people to come in here and be called all kinds of things."

Nearly six months after he took over as ranking Democrat on the House investigative committee, even some Republicans acknowledge that Cummings has become increasingly effective in the role. At times, the lawyer has acted as a defense attorney for the White House. But he has also managed to go on offense in spite of the majority GOP's aggressive oversight agenda, pushing ideas of his own, including an inquiry into mortgage companies. And he has rarely missed an opportunity to do battle with Issa.

In Washington's hyperpolitical environment, the 60-year-old son of South Carolina sharecroppers has managed to elevate his national political profile even though House Democrats are in the minority. Supporters say Cummings has proven a capable adversary to one of the Republican Party's most prominent stars.

"Many of us had concerns that when Darrell Issa become chairman he would approach his new job like gangbusters — he raised everybody's expectations," said California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a former chairman of the committee who served as its ranking Democrat from 1997 to 2007. "It's important that Elijah Cummings is where is."

But some independent watchdog groups are concerned that the rancor, which has grown more bitter in recent weeks, is getting in the way of legislation that has had bipartisan support in the past. A measure to provide protection for federal employees who report government waste, for example, was passed unanimously last year by the Senate but has stalled in the House.

Cummings said he believes that House lawmakers will consider a whistleblower bill by the end of the year.

Even his own agenda, elements of which Cummings is rolling out this month, has been stymied by his rocky relationship with Issa, a six-term Republican from Southern California. Last month, Cummings requested that the committee use its subpoena power to obtain records from some of the nation's largest mortgage companies involved in the foreclosure crisis, but Issa has been cool to the idea.

"I find it rather disappointing that they have not done more together," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group. "I think there was a lot more collaboration in the last Congress."

Alys Cohen, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, said Congress is making progress on the foreclosure issue but could do more if relations between the parties were better.

"A coordinated, bipartisan investigation of an issue that really affects the average person could have a huge effect," she said. "Because things are not moving smoothly, it's difficult to make a lot of progress."

Cummings, who was first elected in 1996 and whose district includes most of Baltimore and parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, is comfortable in the world of bare-knuckle politics. After 13 years in the General Assembly, Cummings defeated 26 candidates in the 1996 Democratic primary for his House seat, previously held by Democrat Kweisi Mfume. After Republicans took control of the House last year, he had to fight to lead Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, ultimately beating Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, who was ahead of him in seniority.

"When I go home at night, I see the houses that have been foreclosed upon — the people are gone," said Cummings, who lives in Baltimore's Madison Park neighborhood. "I talk to the people who can't find a job. I talk to the people who can't get medical care. I see this role as something far bigger than me."

The oversight committee has a history of bruising political fights. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, used his tenure as chairman to pursue scandals in the Clinton White House. Issa vowed last year to use the committee chairmanship to pursue President Barack Obama's policies, including his new health care law.

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