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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee may be known as a forum for political street fighting, but ranking member Elijah Cummings is trying to be more strategic with his punches.
Nearly six months into his role as Democrats’ lead defender, the Maryland lawmaker brings a quiet strength to his effort to blunt House Republicans’ attacks against President Barack Obama.
Cummings said he believes the panel must wield its power carefully, operating one step below the courts.
“We have a very rare problem: That is we can subpoena anybody in this country to that place and we can swear them in and they have to testify or plead the fifth,” Cummings said.
For him, that means that every investigation meets three criteria: integrity, thoroughness and fairness.
“That’s all I ask for and that’s all I have asked for and that’s all I’m going to continue to ask for,” Cummings said.
While he has increased visibility as the ranking member of the high-profile panel, he dismissed suggestions that he is using it as a launching pad for a future elected leadership post or to seek a statewide office.
“I’m not trying to be anything but a good chairman of this committee, and I really mean that,” Cummings said. “This job right here, this job is not a full-time job, it is a double-time job.”
Still, Cummings, who is the son of sharecroppers, did not rule out seizing an opportunity for higher office if it presents itself, noting that his parents taught him to “always be prepared for the moment because opportunities will come.”
Cummings is seizing opportunities on the Oversight panel by outlining his own three-page oversight agenda that addresses the welfare and safety of middle-class Americans and making government work.
Cummings said he took the unusual step of formalizing proactive goals in the minority because he and his fellow Democratic members of the panel believe they must stand for principles and not just be against his Republican counterpart, Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.).
“I think we have to push and push and push the things that we believe in and the things that go to the hearts of the American people,” Cummings said. “This is bigger than Elijah Cummings. This is bigger than Darrell Issa. This is bigger than this committee. This is bigger than the Congress. All we do, all we ask, is that we hold to this standard to take care of these people.”
One area of prime importance for Cummings is the foreclosure crisis that has hit his Baltimore County district particularly hard. While the panel did hold a field hearing at Cummings’ law school alma mater, the eight-term lawmaker wants the Oversight panel to go further in its investigation of banks and financial service providers involved in the foreclosure crisis. Cummings has asked Issa to subpoena six financial institutions regarding foreclosure practices.
“I don’t think we went far enough,” Cummings said of the foreclosures hearing that Issa granted at his request. “We sort of seem to stop as soon as we get where we need to be investigating the banks and the servicers. That means that we don’t have a thorough investigation,” Cummings said.
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said that Cummings’ request is under discussion and that the “Chairman is taking the ranking member’s request very seriously.”
The ranking member also said he would like to investigate gas speculation, the availability of sufficient medical supplies and worker shortages, particularly in the health care field.
The Maryland Democrat acknowledged the historically tense environment on the panel, which gets worse when there are opposing parties controlling the House and the White House.
Cummings was seen as the most effective defender of Obama and leap-frogged more senior Democratic lawmakers to fulfill that role when he assumed the ranking member position. Yet he said his long-standing support for the president, including endorsing him over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary and when he co-chaired the 2008 Obama/Biden campaign in Maryland, does not necessarily mean unconditional protection.
“I never saw myself as being a defender of the administration, but I did want to make sure that I was a defender of fairness. There is a big difference,” Cummings said.
And while the 30-year political veteran said he isn’t naive about the political undertones of the powerful panel, Cummings said he had hoped to move beyond partisanship.
So far, that has rarely happened. Since the organization of the panel, Cummings and Issa have disagreed on everything from proper use of the committee’s subpoena power to whether the minority would be allowed to give opening statements at hearings.
Despite the disagreements, Cummings said he wanted “real oversight and reform where we don’t necessarily leave our political hats at the door, but at least we take our shoes off, so that you can get to do some things that you agree on.”
He added: “I’m not new to politics. I understand that we are not in control of the House. I get that. But we still have a committee that is supposed to serve a certain function and has certain unique powers and I think we need to use those powers.”
The Maryland Democrat repeatedly mentioned Issa’s mission statement on the purpose of the committee. “It talks about two people — Americans and taxpayers, period. And so I want to be clear that I’m just trying to hold the committee to this document,” Cummings said.
Cummings described his interactions with Issa as a “working relationship,” but he said he believed the panel “could have done better” to have lived up to its mission.
“I think there have been incidences that certainly were unfair,” Cummings said, pointing to the handling of witnesses as a key area of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans. In particular, Cummings said he disagreed with Republicans inviting administration officials to testify in lieu of witnesses Democrats wanted and blocking witnesses such as open-government advocate Fred Wertheimer from testifying during a transparency hearing on campaign spending.
Cummings has also been critical of GOP treatment of Elizabeth Warren, a top adviser to Obama, saying Republicans should be “treating her with respect that she is due.” Warren got into a testy exchange with Republicans on the panel in late May when they continued to question her after her testimony had been scheduled to end.
Issa spokesman Hill discounted Cummings’ criticisms.
“He’s clearly serious about defending the administration and is not so serious about oversight,” Hill said, regarding Cummings’ complaints about Warren’s treatment and the decision to not allow Wertheimer to testify when there were other minority witnesses testifying.
“Clearly he is just looking for something to complain about and distract from the main issue the hearing is on,” Hill said.