Politics & Policy

Elijah Cummings, Party Man

Representative Elijah Cummings (D., Md.)
The leftist congressman goes to the mat for unions and his friend the president.

After the dramatic 2010 midterm elections, the Democratic leadership in the House decided to push Edolphus Towns out of his seat as top Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. According to the Talking Points Memo website, Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders wanted the ranking Democrat on the committee to be someone who could stand up more effectively to the incoming committee chairman, California Republican Darrell Issa. Towns wasn’t enough of a bulldog, and the Democrats had just the man to replace him: Elijah Cummings. Since then, the formerly under-the-radar Marylander has made a name for himself by doing everything he can to protect the White House and the interests that back him. His fierce partisanship is no surprise to those who know his liberal voting record and his devotion to the Left. 

Cummings practiced law for 19 years before going to Washington, and he served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 14 of those years. In 1996 he was elected the representative for Maryland’s 7th congressional district. He has a score of 100 percent from NARAL Pro-Choice America, meaning that he is as pro-abortion as it’s possible to be. (He has voted against banning both partial-birth and sex-selection abortion.) 

Not surprisingly, eight of his top nine donors are unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), including the American Federation of Teachers, a powerful public-sector union. Of all the groups that have contributed to Cummings’s campaigns, labor has poured in the most money by far. Over his career, labor unions have given him more than $1.5 million. In contrast, his second-biggest donor group — identified by CRP as Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate — has given him a little more than half a million dollars. In other words, labor unions have given him three times more than any other industry has.

And Cummings has taken care of his labor-union backers. Last year, Representative Issa threatened to eliminate the National Labor Relations Board, in response to a complaint the NLRB had filed in order to oppose Boeing. The airplane manufacturer had planned to build a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina, and the NLRB fought to oppose the plant. Cummings jumped to the NLRB’s defense and, according to The Hill, sent a letter to Issa accusing him of using the Oversight Committee to exert “undue pressure” on the NLRB. Cummings also said that Boeing “inappropriately sought to use its political influence in Congress” to protect itself from the NLRB. 

And that’s only one example of why Nancy Pelosi was so eager to push Cummings into a leadership position. Nothing gets him off his loyal-partisan message — not even the embarrassing scandal that ensued when reports surfaced this spring of a lavish GSA conference in Las Vegas two years earlier. “One of the most damaging aspects of this incident is that it tarnishes the reputation of government workers who dedicate their lives to public service,” Cummings told the Oversight Committee after that story made national headlines. “It gives them a bad name, and it is completely unfair.”

During the uproar over the scandal, Cummings managed to find an upside for the Obama administration. “The good thing,” as he described it, was that the whistleblower was a Democratic appointee. Moreover, the White House’s response was laudable, he claimed.

Cummings’s praise for the White House is par for the course. Known as a huge fan of the president’s (Obama has proven “absolutely brilliant in the White House,” he has said), Cummings has described himself as Obama’s friend — the president even invited him to “kick it” in the White House before his inauguration, he recalled in a 2011 speech in Oklahoma.

In what have probably been Cummings’s two most important moments in the spotlight — the hearings about the Fast and Furious gun-walking program, and the ones about the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi — he has continued his staunch defense of the administration, even to the point of impugning the character of administration critics. When the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the Fast and Furious scandal, Cummings derided the contempt citation as “a political tool to generate press as part of an election-year witch hunt against the Obama administration.” On CBS’s Face the Nation, he used identical language to characterize the Benghazi investigations, saying that the probes were quickly turning into a “witch hunt.”  

Issa and other committee Republicans weren’t Cummings’s only targets during the Fast and Furious scandal, though. He also trained his sights on Speaker John Boehner. In the lead-up to the contempt vote, he issued a statement saying that if Boehner brought the citation up for a vote, he would “be known as one of the most extreme speakers in history.” He took a similar tack in his opening remarks during the Benghazi hearings, accusing House Republicans of “toxic partisanship.”

Cummings might temper such language if Romney wins two weeks from now. Eli Gold, the president of a conservative Maryland nonprofit, says the Democrats’ grip on Washington probably makes Cummings more comfortable with his incendiary rhetoric. “It’s easy to get onto the bandwagon when you have such noisy people standing in front of you,” he tells National Review Online. If Republicans take over, that could change. 

In the meantime, House Democrats got exactly what they’d hoped for in Cummings — a lockstep partisan who has stuck like a burr to talking points and done everything in his power to obstruct investigations that might damage either labor unions or the president. Pelosi got her bulldog. 

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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