By Jordy Yager and Mike Lillis - 01/25/12 10:00 AM EST
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) is the Democrat who is supposed to make life tougher for Rep. Darrell Issa.
Democrats knew they faced a sophisticated adversary in Issa when the combative California Republican took over the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and vowed to use the panel’s investigatory powers to hold President Obama’s feet to the fire.
The gloves have been off since the first minute, with Issa and Cummings fighting over everything from committee rules to witness lists to subpoena language.
Democrats herald Cummings’s first year as a success.
“I think he’s not been shy about challenging the chairman on each and every issue that comes along to show he’s not going to be worn down,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyOvernight Regulation: DHS pushed to lift employee morale Metro officials clash with lawmakers over funding, safety Clinton-Trump would be the oldest White House match-up in history MORE (D-Va.), an active lieutenant to Cummings.
“I think he’s helped coalesce the Democrats into an important unit both in terms of articulation of issues and in making sure we’re aware of our rights and we’re insisting on them.”
But the eight-term Maryland lawmaker and co-chairman of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign says the long year took its toll.
“This is a hard job,” Cummings said in an interview in his Rayburn office at the close of the first session. “It’s been very difficult. I realize that we’re in the minority. I don’t forget that. But I’m convinced that my life is too short and my time is too valuable not to achieve some things in this committee. And it’s been challenging, to say the least.”
Issa and his staff say the chairman doesn’t have “a great working relationship” with Cummings.
“I believe he is there to be a stopping, a stumbling block … to try to stop and help and protect the administration,” Issa said in an October interview with CNN.
“Rep. Cummings secured the role as ranking member by pledging to obstruct the committee’s oversight of this administration,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, in an emailed statement. “Over the past year, his clear commitment to this task at the Oversight Committee has left only limited opportunities for cooperation.”
Cummings rejects the idea that his role is simply to defend the White House against all charges, arguing that he, even more than Issa, has high stakes in ensuring the government runs efficiently.
“As I’ve told Mr. Issa, it is probably more important to me — to my constituents — that government do a great job than it is to his,” he said. “When government fails my constituents, it fails in the area of simple things … things that go to their basic needs.”
Cummings points to his ongoing feud with Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as evidence that he’s not afraid to confront the Obama administration when he thinks it’s failing his constituents.
“I’ve been very frustrated with the administration,” he said, “and I’ve not made that a secret.”
The committee’s first organizational meeting last January set the tone for the combative year, as Issa broke with congressional custom and barred all opening statements he said wasted precious time that could be spent hearing from witnesses. Cummings complained that he was only told about the change less than an hour before the meeting.
After continued outrage from Democrats, Issa relented. But it was the first in a long list of disagreements that have come to characterize the deeply polarized panel.
Cummings acknowledges his battles with Issa have been frustrating, but also says many of their disagreements are based on their different life perspectives.
“I think about Issa — and here I am sitting by this guy who’s worth $300 million, or more — and his view of the world is probably different than mine,” Cummings said.
Cummings, the son of former sharecroppers, represents a district that includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore. He says six of the 15 houses he can see from his front door are in foreclosure, and that some households in his district are living 45 percent below the poverty level.
Issa’s district has been hit hard by the housing crisis, but includes the more prosperous cities of San Diego and Vista. Issa is also a self-made multimillionaire, and the second richest member of Congress, according to a report by The Hill last year.
“I don’t knock him for that,” Cummings said. “I mean, I respect the fact that he’s been able to accomplish those things. I applaud that. That’s wonderful. And I try to see the world out of his glasses. I really do. And I try to understand where he’s coming from.
“When I try to look at it out of his glasses, it’s hard for me to imagine him seeing the pain that I see. And my passion comes out of the pain,” Cummings said.
For the most part, the two men have not been able to work together, though they did recently agree to partner on the panel’s probe of human trafficking.
Still, Cummings has been able to win some grudging respect from Republicans on perhaps the most politically polarized panel in Congress.
“I have tremendous respect for Mr. Cummings,” said freshman Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyCIA to pay 0K in benefits to Benghazi victim's family House panel hears testimony from victims of immigrant crime Benghazi panel getting close, may release report before conventions MORE (R-S.C.).
“We don’t vote the same, but I like the guy. It’s not about politics to him. He says what he believes. And you can tell the ones who are saying it because it was in the memo they got that morning and you can tell the ones who it’s coming from their soul. And with Mr. Cummings it’s coming from his soul.”
Towns, who accused Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of ousting him as the panel’s top Democrat following the 2010 elections, says his colleague is doing a good job. “I’ve been really impressed with him,” Towns said. “To be honest with you, he’s a coalition builder. He’s been able to pull people together that wouldn’t generally work.”