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Rough Beginning at Oversight Committee

File Photo
Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings (left) and Chairman Darrell Issa are having a hard time hiding their disdain for each other.

Cummings is also feeling out his role as the leading Democrat on the committee. The veteran Marylander leapfrogged two more senior Members of his party, including former Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), for the ranking member slot. In taking on the job, Cummings tapped a seasoned investigative hand. Earlier this year, he brought on David Rapallo, the top attorney to Obama's National Security Council, to be the Democratic staff director. Rapallo formerly served for 11 years as a minority subcommittee director for the committee, and later as chief investigative counsel for Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), who was then the panel's top Democrat.

Cummings and Issa's relationship isn't uncommon for a panel charged with oversight, particularly in a period of divided government. Ethics lawyers say the panel has gone through some highly contentious periods, including when Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Waxman served as its top Members.

"This is a committee where the two parties don't talk to each other very much and are in a state of near continuous combat," ethics attorney Robert Kelner of Covington & Burling said.

Still, Kelner said it's important to recognize that "a lot of this crossfire generates heat and light, but it doesn't really fundamentally affect what goes on behind the scenes in the course of the committee's investigations."

House Republicans defend Issa, arguing that Cummings was hand-picked to serve as the top Democrat on the panel to try to block him from going after the Obama administration.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said it is clear that Cummings was put in the role to be an "obstructionist."
"So far, Mr. Cummings has not thrown any olive branches," Hill said. "He's been extremely critical of the committee ... From Mr. Issa's perspective, I think the question is whether or not Mr. Cummings truly wants to be bipartisan or to be an obstructionist."

Meanwhile, Cummings said in a statement that he wants to find ways for the two men to work together.

"It is my sincere hope that Chairman Issa and I can work together on job creation, combating the foreclosure crisis and other issues facing the American people," Cummings said.

But if the past few weeks are any indication, there won't be many areas of bipartisanship.

The two Members are preparing for larger substantive battles as the committee moves forward, including inquiries into the role Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in the foreclosure crisis and the failure of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to agree on the reasons for the market meltdown.

"[They] are laying down markers for how they intend to fight," said Robert Raben, a lawyer who represents clients with issues before the committee. "Dispute about process and substance will escalate as the majority begins to use its subpoena authority ... and it is going to be for very high stakes."

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