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Elijah Cummings: From Night Shift to Oversight of GPO

Cummings now conducts oversight over his old workplace. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Cummings now conducts oversight over his old workplace. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

On the occasion of Wednesday’s House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the Government Publishing Office, ranking member Elijah E. Cummings had the chance to not just conduct oversight, but reflect that more than 40 years ago, he was working the night shift there. At the time, the agency was known as the Government Printing Office and the Maryland Democrat was a student at Howard University in the District of Columbia. Cummings worked at the agency for two years while he was a student, heading to the GPO’s headquarters two nights a week from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.  

“My job was pulling books,” Cummings explained while sitting in the Speaker’s Lobby Tuesday night. “People would order books and we had to pull them off the shelves and box them to be mailed to people who would order them. It was books and pamphlets, all kinds of government — all the stuff that they print over there.”  

“It required a lot of man and woman power because then I guess you didn’t have all the automation that you have today,” Cummings later added. “You literally had to go and find the books and pull them off. Rows and rows of books and pamphlets. … It was kind of intense, intensive work, because, again, we didn’t have machinery or anything like that. We had a ladder and you just went and you did it.”  

Though Cummings said working overnight was difficult (“I did not look forward to that.”) while he was also a student, he was thankful for the job, noting that it helped him pay for school and provided him with a sense of community.  

“The other thing it helped me with was it gave me a family,” Cummings said. “And it was a family of adults who embraced you, embraced us, as if we were their own children, which was very good.”  

A lot has changed since then, for the agency and for Cummings. The Maryland Democrat is now in his 11th term in Congress. The GPO has a new name, is adjusting to digital technology and has cut its workforce to its lowest levels in 100 years.  

Cummings said he’s lost touch with the people he worked with at the agency. But he is sure to have some flashbacks to his time at the GPO as his panel continues its oversight of the agency. (He did not attend Wednesday’s hearing on secure credentials due to a conflict.)  

“Amazing,” Cummings said of having oversight over his old workplace. “I have to pinch myself on that one.”

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