Messages are seen outside of the office of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in Catonsville, Md., on Saturday.

Messages are seen outside of the office of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in Catonsville, Md., on Saturday. Julio Cortez / AP

Cummings’ Leadership on Federal Employee Issues, Bipartisanship Could Be Hard to Replicate

The impeachment inquiry against President Trump is likely to dominate the next Oversight and Reform Committee chair’s agenda, observers say.

The death of House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., last week leaves big shoes to fill, observers of federal workforce issues said.

“His every cell was public servant and focused on creating both effective public policy and ensuring that policy was implemented by the career public service,” said Robert Tobias, director of business development for the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University and a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “He was a public servant, he loved public service, and he modeled it every single day when nobody was looking.”

Cummings was renowned for his ability to be both a staunch defender of progressive causes while maintaining close relationships with Republican lawmakers. He also juggled investigating alleged malfeasance by the Trump administration with tackling federal personnel policy, a decidedly less sexy topic for congressional hearings.

Federal workforce experts said they worry that such a tight rope act could prove difficult for the next leader of the oversight committee, particularly given the growing attention on the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who was named acting chairwoman of the committee last week, issued a statement Monday saying that the committee’s work would continue unabated, but did not mention the federal workforce.

“The work of the Committee on Oversight and Reform will continue uninterrupted despite our heavy hearts—as Chairman Cummings would have wanted,” Maloney said. “We will continue to pursue the impeachment inquiry with vigor in support of the investigation by the Intelligence Committee. Furthermore, the committee will continue its oversight and legislative work to better the lives of Americans across our country. From the high costs of prescription drugs to the horrid treatment of migrants on our Southern border, we will keep shining a light on this administration’s actions and continue to advance the For The People agenda.”

Don Kettl, professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said he fears the impeachment inquiry could dominate committee hearings and discussion about the next chair in the coming weeks, to the detriment of the panel’s responsibilities regarding civil service issues.

 “It’s highly likely that the impeachment issues will dominate the committee’s work—and will dominate the competition over the future leadership of the committee,” Kettl said. “For federal workers, this is a critically important question, because the House committee has been the key player in issues dealing with the workforce. Without strong leadership—and without a prime place on the agenda—it’s likely that attention to federal workforce issues will slide to the background on Capitol Hill.”

Tobias echoed those concerns, noting that it has always been difficult for lawmakers to focus on improving the federal workforce.

“Rarely are public service issues front and center,” he said. “Rarely are they seen as so important as to necessitate public action. We did see it not so long ago with the shutdown—there was a recognition that [federal employees] deliver a needed public service, and that was the tipping point [toward reopening the government]. What we need to do is make this workforce more productive and more engaged, and a lot of people have criticisms, but there aren’t a lot of lawmakers willing to stand up and say, ‘These are the solutions.’ But that’s what Elijah Cummings did.”

The House Democratic caucus will have 30 days to select a new permanent chair of the committee, a clock that likely will start after Cummings’ memorial services later this week. At some point during that time frame, the steering and policy committee will meet and make a recommendation, which then goes to the full caucus for a vote.

A source close to the committee said at least three lawmakers are considering vying for the position: Maloney; Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo.; and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.