Elijah Cummings Gets Ready For His Close-up

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, left, with Sen. Chris Van Hollen in Baltimore Wednesday, is poised to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

On the day after voters handed Democrats control of the House of Representatives, President Trump said members of the opposition party can work to strike bipartisan deals on policy or they can use their newfound power to investigate him – but they can’t do both.

The likely future chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee doesn’t see it that way.

“We have a duty to look into government and to try to figure out what might be wrong, and try to correct it and make things better,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), currently the ranking member of the panel.

“We’re going to do what is responsible and we will address everything with great transparency.”

Cummings, speaking to reporters at a news conference in Baltimore Wednesday, said no decisions have been made regarding what document demands or oversight hearings the committee might pursue, but he signaled a determination to use the committee’s various powers — including the ability to subpoena executive branch papers — to shine a light on the president and the agencies he controls.

“The job laid out to us in the Constitution is to be a check on the executive branch, and we plan to do that,” he said, adding, “We plan to do that with facts. … Fact-based investigations and investigations that hopefully will lead to better government.”

In recent months, Cummings has pressed his GOP colleagues to support Democratic attempts to get documents related the administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, the president’s payments to his former attorney, Michael Cohen, alleged wrongdoing by former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and many others.

And, of course, there has been widespread speculation that Democrats will use their majority-party status to try to gain access to the president’s long-hidden tax returns.

At a White House news conference on Wednesday, Trump praised House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is likely to become speaker in January, and he said there are numerous areas for potential deal-making.

“Now we have a much easier path, because the Democrats will come to us with a plan for infrastructure, a plan for health care, a plan for whatever they are looking at, and we’ll negotiate,” he said.

Later, however, he declared that an onslaught of investigations would preclude negotiations on policy.

“If they do that, then it’s just — all it is, is a warlike posture,” the president said.

“You can’t do them simultaneously. Just think if somebody said, ‘Oh, you can do them both.’ No, you can’t. Because if they’re doing that, we’re not doing the other, just so you understand. So we won’t be doing that.”

Cummings declined to respond directly to the president’s statement.

“I’m not going to get caught up in that dialogue at all. I believe that the president is going to come through. I think he wants to have good government and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, who serves with Cummings on the oversight committee, seemed to suggest that there are numerous potential uses for the panel’s powers to subpoena documents and hold hearings.

“It’s kind of like coming upon an 88-car wreck on the highway in terms of trying to figure out where to get started, with some of what’s taken place in the last couple of years,” the Montgomery Democrat said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed pessimism that a divided Congress will get much done, leaving more floor time for his chamber of confirm the president’s judicial appointments.

But Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) was more optimistic.

“The House will be passing a number of important initiatives,” Van Hollen said. “Election reform. Campaign finance reform. Reducing the cost of prescription drugs. And my hope is that will put pressure on the Republican leadership in the Senate to do the right thing.”

Cummings was one of several Maryland lawmakers to have lunch with Rep.-elect David J. Trone (D) at a restaurant near Port Covington. Afterward, the lawmakers and Trone, the businessman who on Tuesday won the seat occupied since 2013 by Rep. John K. Delaney (D), spoke to reporters.

Also attending the event were Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Reps. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger and John P. Sarbanes.

All expressed optimism that their party’s win on Tuesday would result in positive change for the nation, including renewed focus on infrastructure, the rising cost of prescription drugs, the opioid epidemic, gun safety, education and the environment.

And all pledged to improve political discourse, which Raskin said has become “coarse, even appalling” over the last two years.

“For the last couple years, the country, the democracy has been sliding on loose gravel,” Sarbanes said. “[On Tuesday] we found our footing.”

“We won’t tolerate speech that leads to hate that can lead to violence,” said Cardin. “We want to make this a hate-free country.”

Sarbanes has put together a package of bills dealing with elections and ethics reform that could breathe new life in 2019.

Along with Pelosi or whomever becomes speaker, Cummings could well end up the public face of Democrats’ efforts to obtain documents the White House would prefer to keep hidden.

Perhaps mindful of that possibly, Van Hollen praised his former House colleague, calling him “someone who is going to be pivotal and central to the effort of the American people to get the facts on all sorts of important issues.”

“We need transparency, we need accountability and the public has a right to know what’s going on in a whole range of issues. And I know Elijah Cummings is the right person for the job at this important time in our history,” Van Hollen said.

Another Maryland Democrat who could see his stature rise as a result of Tuesday’s balloting is Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who Cardin said was unable to attend the lunch because of meetings on Capitol Hill.

Hoyer, who has longer dreamed of being speaker, has served as majority leader in the past and is hopeful of retaking that post in January when the new Congress is sworn in.

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