Cummings’ Influence on the Rise

Posted December 23, 2010 at 12:51pm

Rep. Elijah Cummings’ House Democratic colleagues are increasingly eyeing him as a possible successor to Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) in the Caucus’ elected leadership.

The Maryland Democrat — who earlier this month beat out Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) for the ranking member spot on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — is positioned to become one of the chamber’s most influential Democrats next year as he takes on the panel’s aggressive incoming Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Cummings, 59, is a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman who was elected to the Maryland legislature shortly after the departure of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is a Baltimore native.

He beat Maloney for the Oversight gavel with a resounding 119-61 vote with help from Hoyer and fellow Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen. The victory came even though Maloney had more seniority and the backing of outgoing Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) and the rest of the influential New York delegation.

Democratic Members and aides said Cummings could win a seat in leadership, particularly if the 70-year-old Clyburn — the No. 3 House Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress — were to retire.

“The Members gave him their trust … and I think certainly that’s a very first step of recognition of the fact that he has the qualities and … so he represents a very fine example of leadership if and when an opportunity comes forward,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a fellow CBC member.

Incoming CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver said Cummings has already been viewed as a prime contender for leadership, but his new role on the Oversight panel could help him raise his profile.

“The members of the Democratic Caucus who don’t know the unique skills of this Baltimore legislator will learn quickly that he is always at the top of his game,” the Missouri Democrat said. “That inevitably will lead to people wanting to make sure that he’s in a position of greater influence within the Congress.”

Keeping an African-American in leadership has been a major goal of the CBC. A brief leadership tussle between Hoyer and Clyburn for the No. 2 slot after the midterm elections threatened to leave Clyburn and the CBC cut out of the Caucus hierarchy entirely, but the ensuing outcry from black Members forced Pelosi to create a new No. 3 position — Assistant Leader — for Clyburn.

A senior Democratic aide said Cummings has worked hard to remain active in the CBC since serving as its chairman and noted that he was an early supporter of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, serving as chairman of Obama’s efforts in Maryland. Cummings also makes regular appearances on cable news shows defending the administration and the Democratic agenda.

The aide described Cummings as “really well-liked” among his fellow Democrats, both at the lawmaker and staff level.

“He certainly should be considered an up-and-comer in the Caucus, and I think that he’s a real asset for the leadership, and he’s gong to be a real asset for the administration in his role as the ranking member on OGR,” the aide said.

But others have questioned whether there would be room for yet another Marylander at the top of House leadership if the 71-year-old Hoyer sticks around. Hoyer will serve as Minority Whip in the next Congress.

Van Hollen, the ambitious ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee and outgoing chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has also eyed a move up the elected leadership ladder.

In a recent interview with Roll Call, Cummings dismissed a question about his leadership aspirations.

“I’m not thinking about that, to be honest with you,” he said. “That’s not even on my mind.”

Instead, Cummings’ focus is on his new role, where he said he would work hard to strike a balance between rooting out any fraud and abuse within the executive branch with countering any overzealousness on the part of Issa or other Republicans.

“The No. 1 mission of the oversight committee is to make sure that government is operating effectively and efficiently and that taxpayers’ dollars are being spent so that they provide maximum benefit to our constituents,” he said.

Cummings has long had his eye on the top spot on oversight, but got into the race only after Towns bowed out. He said he honed his oversight skills while he was chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, which he said he demanded “be excellent in everything it did.”

And just because he has close ties to the president, doesn’t mean Obama should expect an easy ride out of him, Cummings said.

“This administration has to have high standards and must pursue excellence because I think that benefits all of us: Democrats, Republicans and the president himself,” he said.

Still, after Republicans won the House majority in 1994, Cummings said he saw firsthand how the oversight committee “could step over the line with regard to deposing and examining witnesses,” and pledged to stop Republicans over the next two years from making similar mistakes. As part of that effort, Cummings said he has already started discussions with Issa about finding areas of common ground.

“What I have to make sure of is that the committee stays true to its mission and not partake in fishing expeditions and efforts which are not consistent with our mission,” he said.