Cummings gets nod from caucus to take top Dem spot on Oversight panel

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) faces the demanding and nearly impossible task of trying to rein in GOP plans to unleash hundreds of fresh investigations of Obama administration policies and programs.

House Democrats chose Cummings as their ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday over Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in a vote of 119-61, according to a Democratic source.

The decision to promote Cummings to the top post was an attempt to counter the aggressive incoming Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has vowed to hold hundreds of hearings and launch new investigations into the bank bailouts, the stimulus funds and possibly the healthcare overhaul.

Cummings takes on the high-profile role just two days after Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the panel, surprised colleagues and committee staff by stepping down and endorsing Maloney, the next most senior member of the panel.

“What we have to do is make sure the committee stays true to its purpose, which is making sure that government agencies are operating well without waste and abuse,” Cummings said Thursday. “But we need to make sure not to go too far in abusing that purpose.”

Cummings stressed he would work with Issa where he could but said he did not want to see anything like what happened during the Clinton administration, when Republicans controlled the House and launched investigation after investigation into the administration, ultimately impeaching him.

He said his work for the last four years on the Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on the U.S. Coast Guard, where he monitored a $24 billion effort to modernize its aging fleets, helped prepare him for the role because he had to be tough but also work with the branch’s top brass to successfully transition to the new fleets.

The Maryland Democrat also said he would try to strengthen the lines of communication between his office and Issa’s and rebuild the frayed relations between Democrats and Republicans on the panel.

“The American people have sent a strong message that they want us to work together,” he said.

Issa, for his part, congratulated Cummings on his selection, and reminded him of his vocal and vigorous oversight of the Bush administration.

“I have no doubt that Elijah will continue to champion the cause of oversight and reform in government and work in concert with committee Republicans to root out the waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement that has become institutionalized in the federal government," Issa said in a statement.

Even before Republicans won back the majority in the midterm elections, Democrats had been urging Towns to give up his gavel and allow Cummings to take the lead role on the committee. Cummings, a combative but shrewd senior member, could go toe-to-toe with Issa, Democrats privately argued, while Towns had let Issa outmaneuver and bully him on several occasions, including a clash over a probe into the Countrywide mortgage VIP program.

Towns and Cummings are both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, so handing the gavel to Cummings would maintain the number of CBC members in leadership positions.

Yet, Towns did not relinquish the top post until Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a senior CBC member, met with him earlier this week and asked him to step down. It was clear by the end of the week that Towns was stung by the coup. He sent Pelosi a terse letter Wednesday complaining about her decision to push him aside and demanding to retain membership on the Oversight committee as well as seniority on the Energy and Commerce panel.

The decision to topple Towns also undermined previous CBC arguments for respecting seniority on committees, and some of its members worried that the move could hurt future arguments in favor of letting seniority dictate committee leadership down the road.

“It may make sense for this committee and be okay right now, but I think it’s going to hurt us in the future,” remarked an aide to a CBC member.

Maloney quickly pointed to the apparent CBC flip-flop as she campaigned hard for the post. She sent a lengthy letter to the steering committee touting her accomplishments and the fact that she would be the first woman to serve in the minority’s top spot on the committee. The entire New York delegation and several liberal women’s groups publicly backed Maloney.

Reps. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranThe Hill's Top Lobbyists 2020 Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report MORE (D-Va.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a previous chair of the Oversight and Government Reform panel, and George Miller (D-Calif.) spoke on behalf of Cummings during a closed-door steering committee meeting, emphasizing his strengths — that he is extremely articulate, well-prepared and doesn’t back down from a fight.

“We need someone as strong as possible to go up against Issa, who has said he is going to issue [hundreds of] investigations and subpoenas in his first few months,” Moran said in an interview. “[Cummings] doesn’t back down even when he’s up against the kind of relentless pressure.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) called Cummings “a fighter and a real warrior,” noting his tendency to work late into the evening to ensure he is prepared and conversant on the intricacies of issues.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) nominated Maloney and spoke on her behalf.

Afterward, he said he was “somewhat surprised” by the lopsided 33-18 vote in favor of Cummings and called the vote a “blow” to the seniority system Democrats usually abide by when determining ranking member slots.

—This story was last updated at 11:38 a.m. on Dec. 17.