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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 12/16/2010

Elijah Cummings wins top Democratic slot on House government oversight committee

By Ben Pershing

Updated 10:35 p.m.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings has won the race to serve as the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the next Congress, a victory that will enable him to be the Obama administration's chief defender against an expected onslaught of Republican-led investigations.

The House Democratic Caucus voted Thursday night to give Cummings the job over Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) on a 119 to 61 vote. The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee voted 33 to 18 earlier Thursday to endorse Cummings's bid.

The Government Reform panel has broad authority to conduct oversight of the entire federal government, and also has specific jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and policies affecting federal workers.

The panel's ranking-member position became vacant when current Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) unexpectedly announced this week that he would give it up. Towns has faced private pressure from the White House and Democratic leaders, according to congressional sources, amid concerns that he might not be an effective counterpart against incoming Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Though he has made some conciliatory statements recently, Issa has also made clear that he plans to conduct aggressive oversight of the Obama administration. He is reportedly adding to his staff of investigators and planning scores of hearings for 2011.

Even in the minority, Issa has been an outspoken critic of Obama on issues such as whether the White House offered a job to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to persuade him to drop out of the Pennsylvania Senate race, and on the Countrywide mortgage scandal.

The Government Reform panel has traditionally been a thorn in the side of the executive branch at times when the House and the White House were controlled by opposing parties, with the chairman of the committee empowered to issue subpoenas without seeking the approval of the ranking member.

Speaking to reporters earlier Thursday, Cummings said that if he got the job, "I would want to work with Mr. Issa and the Republicans. But at the same time, I want to make sure that there is no abuse of the process."

Cummings, who represents Baltimore and its suburbs, noted that he was on the committee during the Clinton era, "when it seemed like we had a new investigation every few weeks," and said that he wants to make sure that the process is fair.

"I think we've got to hold this administration to a high standard, but at the same time, we've got to be fair, we've got to be reasonable and we cannot abuse the process," he said.

Maloney made a similar case to her colleagues.

"Both candidates talked about their accomplishments and said that the ranking member here has to fend off Darrell Issa," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the Steering panel.

As a backer of Maloney, his fellow New Yorker, Nadler said he "was somewhat surprised at the size of the result. I thought it would be closer."

The Government Reform contest split the Congressional Black Caucus. Some black lawmakers said they were unhappy with how Towns, a CBC member, had been treated. Others said privately they understood why Towns needed to be replaced.

The problem for many CBC members was that the caucus traditionally values seniority above all else in making committee decisions, a policy that has helped result in several black lawmakers holding top panel slots.

Now they had to decide between supporting Maloney, who is currently second on the panel seniority roster behind Towns, or Cummings, who is third -- and a former CBC chairman.

"It's a quandary," said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). "Both of them are close friends."

Clay said it made sense for the CBC to call for seniority to be honored, since "sometimes that's the only power we have."

But Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N,C.), another CBC member who backed Cummings, said the caucus policy on seniority is "fairly rigid, but it's not absolute."

While Maloney had the support of the sizable New York delegation, Cummings was helped by the backing of two Marylanders -- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the outgoing Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman who is set to become the top Democrat on the Budget Committee.

By Ben Pershing  | December 16, 2010; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency, Democratic Party  
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