The House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman's seat is draped in black cloth honoring Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman's seat is draped in black cloth honoring Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Federal Employees Lose a Powerful Advocate With Death of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings

The Oversight and Reform chairman was a “fierce advocate for the public interest,” one observer says.

With the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., on Thursday, Democrats lost a powerful figure at the forefront of government oversight and reform, and a steadfast advocate for civil servants.

Cummings, the son of sharecroppers and a lifelong Baltimore resident, served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 14 years, where he was the first black House speaker pro-tem. He was elected to Congress in 1996. Cummings was a staunch fighter for racial justice, federal workers and government reform. Most recently, he’s led the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s many investigations into the Trump administration. 

Cummings, who became ranking member of the oversight committee in 2010 and chairman when the Democrats regained control of the House after the 2018 midterms, was a “fierce advocate for the public interest,” University of Texas Professor Donald Kettl said. Although he “brought an intensity that could not be ducked” to hearings, he “also brought a genuine, deeply rooted sense of what he thought was right,” which “made him a true giant in the House.”

Cummings was known for working across the aisle. He helped pass laws to allow whistleblowers to appeal cases from the Merit Systems Protection Board to any circuit of appeals with jurisdiction, modernize the Federal Records Act to archive electronic records, reform the Freedom of Information Act to increase government transparency and make it easier for users of the government’s retirement program to manage their investments. Although not signed into law, he also supported bipartisan efforts to overhaul the Postal Service

“Cummings, better than most, understood the calling of public service and he shared that calling with the federal employees he represented in Baltimore and all those around the country,”  National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said. 

“Whether advocating for domestic partner benefits, protecting pensions from politically motivated attacks, supporting labor law reform, or being an unapologetic champion for robust collective bargaining rights, Congressman Cummings stood with working people at every turn,” stated Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. 

Upon the Democrats winning back the House in November 2018, Cummings said in an interview with Government Executive: “One word that has not seemed to resonate with congressional Republicans is accountability. We need accountability, transparency, integrity and honesty from this administration.” 

Cummings led investigations into Trump’s potential Emoluments Clause violations, tax returns, immigration policies, handling of national security information, and ties with Russia. Additional probes involved the security clearance process and voter suppression. Although he was absent from the Hill recently due to his health, his committee is central to the impeachment inquiry that was spurred by a whistleblower complaint about a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the current No. 2 on the Oversight and Reform Committee, will be the acting chair until there is a caucus process to elect a permanent one.

Following the news of Cummings’ death, Democrats and Republicans issued statements praising his life and career. “Earlier this year, Chairman Cummings asked us, ‘When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?’” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.  “May Chairman Cummings’ strength guide us as we carry on his work to honor the oath and protect our democracy.”

Former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., whom Cummings succeeded as oversight chairman, tweeted that Cummings was “one of the most powerful, beautiful and compelling voices in American politics” and they “never had a cross word outside of a committee room.” 

Despite calling Cummings’ district of Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” in July, President Trump expressed his condolences, saying, “I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader.”

Cummings is also known for his roles as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and senior Democrat on the House Benghazi Committee, as well as calls for justice and an end to the riots in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody.

Eric Katz contributed to this report.