New York Rep. Edolphus Towns’ abrupt decision not to seek the top Democratic slot on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee touched off a massive scramble for the job, splitting the Congressional Black Caucus as well as putting gender, regional and ideological politics into play.
Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (Md.), the Nos. 2 and 3 Democrats on the panel, respectively, are facing off today, hoping to garner the recommendation of the Steering and Policy Committee for the high-profile position opposite incoming Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
The battle has put the CBC in the spotlight. Seniority has traditionally been a rallying point for the CBC, and the caucus released a letter last week reaffirming its support for seniority when Towns faced a challenge from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). But with Cummings now in the running, CBC members have an uncomfortable choice to make: stand by their traditional fidelity to seniority or back Cummings, a former CBC chairman.
“We recognize the awkwardness of the position we are in,” incoming CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “However, we still must cling tenaciously to the system of seniority. ... We are not going to tweak it, amend it or temporarily suspend it.”
CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who declined to say whom she was supporting, reiterated that the caucus supports the seniority system.
“We stand by our statement,” she said.
Losing the ranking member slot would be another hit to the CBC, which has already seen its clout erode with embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) losing his perch earlier this year atop the Ways and Means Committee amid ethics issues.
Maloney has already lined up significant CBC support, including Towns, playing on the seniority issue.
“I’m a strong believer. Even when I didn’t have any, I supported seniority,” Towns said of backing Maloney. “She is the senior person.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), another CBC member who is on the steering panel, said she will be nominating Maloney for the slot.
Cummings, widely perceived as the preference of Democratic leadership and the Obama administration, is mounting his own counteroffensive with the help of fellow Maryland Democrats Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen.
Cummings said he wasn’t using race to garner support.
“When I got into this, Dennis Kucinich was running,” Cummings said. “Don’t lose sight of that. Dennis Kucinich would have skipped over me. Once I’m in a fight, I’m in it.”
Still, Cummings acknowledged he is in an awkward position given the CBC’s long-standing promotion of the seniority system.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.