The moment came more than 10 hours into Hillary Clinton’s marathon testimony before the House Benghazi Committee last month. After a long day of asking questions about the lethal 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Libya and security concerns there and elsewhere, Republicans on the panel began asking about Clinton’s private email account and server. That’s when Rep. Elijah Cummings’ frustration boiled over.
“I don't know what we want from you,” the exasperated Democrat from Maryland said to Clinton. “Do we want to badger you over and over again until you get tired, until we do get the ‘gotcha’ moment? We're better than that.”
Raising his voice and gesturing emphatically with every word, he continued: “We are so much better. We are a better country. And we are better than using taxpayer dollars to try to destroy a campaign. That's not what America is all about. So you can comment if you like; I just had to get that off my chest.”
The rant earned applause in the room and gratitude from the former secretary of state. But it did not surprise those who have observed Cummings over the past five years as the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and for the last 18 months in the same position on the Benghazi panel. Similarly impassioned outbursts had also occurred during a highly confrontational hearing in September when Cummings criticized Republicans for questioning the salary of Planned Parenthood’s president but not that of bank CEOs. Another one famously happened in March of last year, when Rep. Darrell Issa, then-chairman of the oversight committee, cut off Cummings’ microphone and ended the questioning of embattled IRS official Lois Lerner, prompting Cummings to shout, “If you will sit down and allow me to ask the question, I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America. I am tired of this.”
Cummings, in an interview with RealClearPolitics outside the House chamber Tuesday, said such moments aren’t preconceived. They are eruptions of pure emotion, driven by the fact he can’t stand the idea of going home and asking himself why he didn’t speak up.
“When you reach 64 years old and you look at the life expectancy of an African-American man, which is 71.8 years, I ask myself, if I don’t say it now, when am I going to say it?” Cummings explained. “I do believe it is those moments that, for me, it’s not politics. It’s what I really feel. I think people have to respect that, and I think they do. I think they know that it’s coming from a place of integrity.”
Cummings’ nearly two-decade career in the House, aided by these more recent moments in the spotlight, has earned him respect among Democrats and Republican colleagues, and the power and influence that comes with being a ranking member on two major committees. But with Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski retiring at the end of next year, Cummings has to decide whether to give up that perch and potentially begin anew across the Capitol. He isn’t sure when he’ll make that choice.
“The balance comes down to where can I be most effective and efficient, assuming I stay in politics for the rest of my life,” Cummings told RCP. “That’s what it boils down to. And I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Leading Committees, Gaining Influence
In 2010, when the House flipped to Republican control, Issa was poised to take over as the chairman of the oversight committee. The previous chairman, Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns, didn’t have the support to become ranking member and Cummings ultimately earned the spot despite being behind Rep. Carolyn Maloney in seniority.
“He was the right person at the right time, especially when you had a leader like Darrell Issa, who was constantly attempting to raise issues against our members of our party and trying to be aggressive,” Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger said. “Elijah stood up and said we’re either going to work together or I’m going to stand up and call you on things that I don’t think are appropriate.”
Issa’s four years leading that committee were infamously fractured, strained by accusations of extreme partisanship on investigations into Benghazi, the IRS Tea Party scandal and the “Fast and Furious” gun-running case, among others. Democrats suspected Republicans of using the panel for political gain, going after the Obama administration on fishing expeditions. Republicans generally saw the administration as uncooperative and recalcitrant, and Democrats on the panel as obstructionist, preventing investigations from being run properly.
Issa, who turned over the gavel to Rep. Jason Chaffetz this year because of term limits, said he and Cummings had “the best of relationships, the worst of relationships.”
“Privately, Elijah Cummings is a good, decent man who is honest and candid,” Issa told RCP. “Publicly, he carried the water for the administration unapologetically and with a disregard to the facts, but that was the mandate of Nancy Pelosi and he carried it out well.”
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill called Issa’s claim “ridiculous. Leader Pelosi isn’t involved in the inner workings of committees.” Issa said that while they often duked it out publicly, he and Cummings were able to work very well together behind the scenes, including when they investigated the National Football League and delved into problems inside the Secret Service.
Chaffetz similarly has had good things to say about working with his Democratic counterpart behind the scenes. The Utah Republican told RCP in July that he has a “wonderful relationship” with Cummings, and that while the two obviously don’t agree on a number of things, they do “understand and respect each other.”
Cummings, for his part, said he saw his role on the committee as twofold: to improve the way government operates and to make sure the president and administration are treated fairly. He believes he has largely succeeded. As for his private relationships with Republicans, he asserts that their areas of agreement far outweigh those of disagreement, and he focuses on that.
“The other thing I do is try to reach for a higher plane,” Cummings said. “In other words, I love that saying ‘I don’t want to reach common ground, I want to reach higher ground.’ And I try to always put the emphasis on our constituents. They’re the people that are depending on us, they’re the people who we represent. That’s what we are, representatives.”
The Democrats on his panels give Cummings high grades for his leadership. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a third-term congresswoman who is running for the Senate, sits on both the oversight and Benghazi committees. Regarding the former, she said that early in her career Cummings and his staff went out of their way to help her develop her interest in federal procurement reform.
On the Benghazi committee, Duckworth said she was deeply concerned about issues of improving diplomatic security. The Illinois lawmaker said Cummings told her, “Tammy, you’re the vet on the committee, you take that. You’re on here because of your expertise in that field, so be sure to ask those questions.”
Another Benghazi panel member, Rep. Adam Schiff, highlighted Cummings’ coaching talents. Noting that the committee includes ranking members of three other panels – Schiff on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Smith on Armed Services and Rep. Linda Sanchez on the Ethics Committee – he said, “You have a lot of fairly senior members and keeping them all on the same page, working together as a team is a challenge, but it’s a sign of our respect for him that he has been able to do that so effectively.”
Senate Race in the Cards?
If Cummings does decide to run for Senate, it will shake up what is already expected to be one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in the country, and he will be challenging two colleagues, Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.
Cummings already has an edge over the two in polling, according to a recent Washington Post survey that showed him with 33 percent of the Democratic vote, compared to 20 percent for both Van Hollen and Edwards. Cummings told RCP he conducted polling of his own in April and May, and that his potential lead in the race is basically unchanged despite his months of indecision on the race.
Cummings has plenty of other advantages should he decide to run. Both Edwards and Van Hollen represent districts in the Washington area, while Cummings has strong support in his Baltimore-area district, which he’s won with at least 70 percent of the vote in every election but one (last year, when he got 69.9 percent).
“I don’t think we can underestimate the asset of being such a beloved Baltimore figure,” said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. “He has the largest name ID out of any of the candidates statewide. He is not just a beloved figure in Baltimore, he was very involved in the president’s campaign in 2008 in Maryland.”
Feldman said Cummings’ tenure on the Benghazi and oversight panels, and the national spotlight associated with them, are an enormous political asset
He has appeared in nationally televised committee hearings as “a voice sticking up for the values that Democrats believe in … and that obviously helps him across the state and I think that’s a big deal for him; it’s a big deal for a fundraising network,” Feldman said.
Dave Heller, a Democratic strategist and close political confidant of Cummings, called him the “prohibitive favorite” and said it’s “his race to lose” if he enters the contest. One question, however, involves fundraising. Van Hollen raised nearly a million dollars in the third quarter this year and has more than $4.1 million on hand. Cummings raised only $135,000 in the third quarter and has just under $1 million on hand. But Cummings believes he can get the job done if he runs.
“I know I could raise the money. I have absolutely no doubt,” he said, citing the Post poll as evidence of his standing in the race.
So if he’s in that strong and confident position, why not run?
For most lawmakers, the chance to jump from the House to the Senate, becoming one of 100 rather than one of 435, would be a no-brainer, especially in a state like Maryland, where Democrats are almost assured to win the general election.
But for Cummings, it isn’t that simple.
He has outsize influence in the House thanks to his committee positions and to the goodwill and relationships he’s built over the years. And, according to Heller, he has a fierce loyalty to his constituents back home in Baltimore, and is grappling with whether he can best serve them by continuing in the House or leaping to the upper chamber.
“It’s bigger than me,” Cummings said of the decision. “It’s not about me. I think if it were just about me, I’d probably just run for the Senate and try to make history. If it was just about me, I wouldn’t be going through all the deliberations that I’m going through in my own mind. But I realize it’s about the people that I represent.”
Leaving the House would mean he’d have to give up his position on the Oversight Committee, where he’s been able to conduct meaningful investigations. But in the Senate, he would vote on Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees and have the power to stop Republican legislation in its tracks. Also in the Senate, there’s the added lure of being in the majority if Democrats are able to win back five seats next November, while in the House he appears, at least for the foreseeable future, stuck in the minority.
But even that isn’t so clear-cut. Holding a majority that’s less than 60 seats in the Senate makes it difficult to enact major legislation, and Democrats are unlikely to clear that hurdle next year. And in the House, Cummings’ outsize influence means he’s in a position to do a lot even facing a historically large Republican majority.
He pointed to his recent work cracking down on pharmaceutical companies and prescription drug price gouging as an example. A bill Cummings wrote requiring generic drug manufacturers to provide rebates to Medicaid when prices rise faster than inflation passed as part of last month’s bipartisan budget agreement. And Democrats are convening a task force on the issue of drug price gouging.
“My point is, that’s done in the minority,” Cummings said. “And it’s because I’m in a position to make a difference. Sure, there’ll be opportunities in the majority, but I’ll also be number 100 out of 100, or 99 out of 100.”
There are also other, broader implications than just how Cummings can best represent his constituents or what kind of power he would have. Only nine African- Americans have ever served in the Senate – Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Tim Scott currently are the only two in that chamber – and Cummings, or Edwards, who is also African-American, would be the 10th.
“I think that if he is in the United States Senate, he and Sen. Booker become the two most prominent African-American figures in the nation once President Obama retires,” Heller said. “So I think there is a very strong allure to that position.”
Cummings knows he can’t deliberate forever. Feldman, the Democratic strategist, said he would likely need to make a decision by the holiday season – well before the February filing deadline. Heller dismissed that line of thinking, pointing out that many people were saying months ago that a decision had to be imminent, but Cummings hasn’t slipped in polls.
But polls aren’t everything. Vice President Joe Biden was surging in Democratic presidential polls for weeks this summer and into the fall, but decided against running in late October, saying he was “out of time” to mount a successful campaign. Cummings is aware of the potential for this to happen to him, whether it’s a matter of weeks or months from now.
“It’s important to make a decision,” Cummings said. “Because if you don’t make a decision, a decision will be made for you.”
The Baltimore native brought up his strong religious faith, which comes from the fact that both his parents were preachers. He said he has faith that when he’s ready, the right decision will come. And once he decides, he’ll be all in, one way or the other.
“I want to have a voice; I want to have an effective voice. The question is, what’s the best place to do that? And that is not an easy answer,” Cummings said. “I know there will come a moment where I say, ‘Elijah, this is what you’re going to do, or you should do,’ and once I make that decision, I’m at peace. I know the moment will come.”