People change, never more than after elected to Congress. In 1996, I got to know a newly-elected Democratic Congressman from Maryland, Elijah Cummings. As Republican staff director and counsel for the Oversight Committee’s largest subcommittee, I worked closely with Elijah, who was invariably thoughtful, kind and humble. His biggest concern was America’s drug crisis, on which we worked tirelessly, collaboratively and to good effect. I miss that Elijah.
Today, the man I knew seems gone, replaced by an arch-partisan, more interested in impeachment than ending the drug crisis. Throughout the late 1990s, Cummings was respectful, hard to spin up, inherently reflective, slow to anger, and possessed a rare quality, asking more questions than telling.
After 9-11, he addressed the National Narcotics Officers, reminding them that we have more in common than what divides us, describing the drug crisis as a shared concern, one that deserved non-partisan focus. His speech was so compelling, leadership on the issue so earnest, I took off my “One America” tie and gave it to him – he accepted it with hallmark decency.
Somehow, whatever the catalyst for his abrupt shift, that non-partisan, problem-solving, legislatively-inclined and respectful congressman – is nowhere to be found. Serving now as Chairman of the Oversight Committee, the same man who focused as a ranking minority leader on the drug crisis, has led three hearings out of 60 on that topic. Instead, everything he does is aimed at the President.
The same man who once respected all testifying witnesses, and spoke supportively to law enforcement officers, now literally yells at them – excoriating senate-confirmed federal law enforcement officers who come before his committee, the way his Democratic colleagues yell at line agents on the border.
The same man who once led the US House bipartisan drug policy working group, which I also staffed, now seems to disdain bipartisanship, wheeling his committee away from legislation, using its considerable jurisdiction to push impeachment. His committee has issued more subpoenas in his first five months than we did in five years and issued his first less than a month into his term.
While a member of Congress cannot single-handedly change the economic status of a district, it is true that his district needs help. Major parts of the Baltimore-centric 7th Maryland district are less “safe” than 90 percent of America, according to FBI data. The need for economic revitalization is undisputed.
But that is not where this one-time collegial colleague has put emphasis, not what his committee is being used to promote, and not what the old Elijah would – I think – have imagined doing.
Why not ask the heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), US Coast Guard, national prevention, treatment and law enforcement personnel to come before you – helping resolve a crisis robbing us of more than 70,000 young lives year?
The old Elijah would have done what we did more than 20 years ago. He would have held hearings respectful of law enforcement officials, focused on using oversight for non-partisan purposes, to lift America, love America, insist on outcomes tied to accountability for federal dollars, saving young lives.
Goodness knows that his district, and most districts, need this kind of help, willingness by members to engage bipartisan leadership, and focus on generating solutions to this problem – and to others of significance – more than we need more haranguing on impeachment, a pile of senseless, go-nowhere, partisan subpoenas.
Congressman Cummings – old and new – is right about one thing. The US House Oversight Committee is entrusted by the American people and empowered by the US Constitution to conduct serious, credible, programmatic oversight into how federal dollars appropriated by Congress – are spent.
The old Elijah cared about this, and about using oversight to save young lives in the midst of the last drug crisis. The new one – hailing from a congressional district in need of solutions and oversight in this area – seems more interested in scoring political points than working the way we used to.
People change, never more than when they have been in Congress too long, forgetting why they came. Maybe the President should offer to visit Elijah’s district with him, bringing the Drug Czar, heads of DEA and SAMHSA, work together to turn things around.
Maybe the head of the Oversight Committee should consider talking with the President, instead of at him, sitting respectfully with agency heads instead of shouting at them. Maybe he should set aside impeachment-mania and his subpoena machine for problem-solving of a kind he was once known for. This would be a good time. The drug crisis hasn’t gone away – in his district or anywhere else. I do miss the old Congressman Cummings. People change, never more than in Congress.