No Bitter Battle for Oversight and Government Reform Committee

Posted November 24, 2008 at 7:15pm

House Democrats appear poised to avert a bloody replay of Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) successful but bruising coup for the House Energy and Commerce Committee gavel in choosing his replacement to lead the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), next in line for the Oversight gavel by seniority, is moving swiftly to lock up support. His efforts are limiting the options of his potential chief rivals for the job — Reps. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (Md.), the second and third senior Members in line for the post after Towns. Both have publicly declared they are supporting the Brooklyn Democrat.

Towns is benefiting from a seniority system he cited in supporting Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) losing bid to remain at the helm of the Energy and Commerce Committee. And this time, his colleagues appear loath to waive it — though party insiders believe Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Caucus leaders would prefer to see Cummings get the job.

The would-be contest carries echoes of the gut-wrenching fight Democrats just endured and are eager to avoid repeating. Towns, like Dingell, is considered more of a centrist. His friendliness to business interests have put him at odds with Pelosi at times and often enough back home that he has faced several tough primary challenges in recent elections — most recently in August, from former MTV Real World star Kevin Powell.

Cummings, meanwhile, supported Waxman, delivering a nominating speech to the Caucus on his behalf. Like Waxman, he is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has a reputation as a tough-minded reformer.

But both lawmakers are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has treasured the party’s respect for length of service, since the tradition has rewarded its members with the gavels of the Homeland Security, Judiciary, and Ways and Means panels. And Cummings, a former CBC chairman, appears unlikely to challenge it.

“The Congressman has said from day one that he would love to be the next Chairman of the Committee, but he respects that his CBC colleague, Mr. Towns, is next in line,” spokeswoman Jennifer Kohl said last Thursday, after Waxman secured his victory. Aides said Cummings has also given Towns a private assurance he would not run.

Towns is making the most of his so-far uncontested status to lock up his colleagues — an advantage Dingell did not enjoy as he tried to beat back a surprise challenge from Waxman. “Rep. Towns is in the process of reaching out to Members of various regions of the Democratic Caucus and is encouraged by their support,” spokeswoman Shrita Sterlin said. Towns’ team plans to release endorsement letters from “almost all, if not all” members of the CBC and the New York delegation early next week, Sterlin said. At press time on Monday, only a handful of CBCers had yet to sign onto a letter, with Cummings among them, aides familiar with the effort said.

Nevertheless, Towns’ backers contend the race is all but over. “He out-organized and out-punched” potential rivals, one senior Democratic aide close to Towns said. The aide acknowledge that if Democratic leadership “had their druthers, they would not give it to him” but said Towns is committed to quashing lingering concerns. “The message Mr. Towns will send is, ‘I plan to work hard and be a team player,’” the aide said.

Sterlin said Towns has already “reached out to leadership and is looking forward to meeting with them.”

Whether Pelosi will be assuaged by Towns’ pitch — and anxious enough to avoid another contest that rends her Caucus — remains to be seen.

Another option for her would be to offer Towns a sweet enough alternative that he walks away from the Oversight and Government Reform gavel. On Friday, she suggested she expected to honor Towns’ seniority in picking Waxman’s replacement, while appearing to leave the door open for another approach. “I don’t know that anything would be outside the regular order,” she said in responding to a question about who would take over the panel. “But we are just getting used to the idea of what happened yesterday. So …”

Pelosi avoided direct involvement in Waxman’s bid, though few doubted that her sympathies lay with her home-state colleague and fellow environmentalist.

The stakes for control of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee are considerably smaller. With President-elect Barack Obama in the White House, the panel’s oversight of the executive branch is expected to take a back seat. And though it will still be charged with investigating private-sector wrongdoing, Waxman will take some of that portfolio with him to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has its own Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is expected to meet early next month to recommend a chairman for the post.