Expect lots of eulogies today for 12-term congressman and House Oversight chair Elijah Cummings, who died overnight at the relatively young age of 68. Inboxes are already filling with statements from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Cummings had run his committee while battling health issues related to complications of heart surgery in 2017, but it seems no one thought he’d succumb to them:
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and a key player in the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, died early Thursday of complications from longtime health issues, his office said in a statement. The Maryland Democrat was 68.
Cummings had missed roll call votes since Sept. 11 and said in a Sept. 30 statement that he expected to return to the House by mid-October after having a medical procedure, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The 12-term congressman died at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice Care, a Johns Hopkins affiliate, due to “complications concerning longstanding health challenges,” according to his office’s statement.
Cummings was initially sidelined after receiving heart surgery to replace an aortic valve in May 2017. That procedure led to an infection, keeping him in the hospital through much of the summer session.
House Oversight has been the battleground for plenty of partisan fights, including the Benghazi scandal when Darrell Issa and Trey Gowdy chaired the committee. Cummings has chaired the committee through various issues related to Democrats’ impeachment push over the last two years. However, Cummings managed to avoid some of the nastier partisan antics that have erupted in the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Roll Call notes that “Cummings has remained widely popular on both sides of the aisle,” and that’s likely a reflection of his careful tactics and strategies.
Of course, few people get to Congress by being non-partisan, and no one in either party ascends to leadership positions by being non-partisan either. Cummings fought against both Issa and Gowdy, but largely within the traditional boundaries of partisanship. Cummings managed to retain his overall credibility while pursuing House Democrats’ agenda, just as Gowdy in particular managed to retain his until his retirement last year.
That leaves the question of what comes next for Oversight and for House Democrats. Oversight is deeply involved in the testimony being taken in the impeachment “inquiry” by the House at the moment, with Adam Schiff in more or less a lead position despite his serious credibility issues. Cummings might have been an option for an alternate to Schiff if Nancy Pelosi wanted to put the inquiry on firmer footing; Jerrold Nadler wouldn’t have been any better than Schiff in that regard, although Judiciary would be a more natural home for the effort than Schiff’s Intelligence Committee. Katie Hill (CA) is currently vice chair for Oversight, but she’s a first-termer from a formerly Republican district, and it’s tough to see her as an option for quarterbacking impeachment when she’s the first Democrat to win that seat in 26 years. It’s also very difficult to believe that a freshman will rise to chair a House committee, let alone one as high-profile and powerful as Oversight. Perhaps it will end up going to Carolyn Maloney (NY), who got elected the same year Hill’s seat first flipped to the GOP.
Cummings is well beyond those considerations now, and well beyond any bonds of partisanship. Our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Addendum: Here’s an example of the regard Cumming’s colleagues had for him:
GOP Rep Mark Meadows on Elijah Cummings passing: “I am heartbroken. Truly heartbroken.”
“I have no other words to express the loss.”Meadows and Cummings had a close personal relationship, despite being far apart politically.
— Dana Bash (@DanaBashCNN) October 17, 2019
And this is another notable reaction:
We are saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Cummings. He was a dedicated servant with whom I had the pleasure of working on childhood educational issues in Baltimore. May God bring peace and comfort to the family.
— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) October 17, 2019
Update: This was a gracious salute from the president, who had earlier feuded with Cummings:
My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2019
Update: As I suspected, the chair will at least temporarily pass to Maloney rather than Hill until the caucus can decide on who gets it permanently. She had the most seniority among Democrats, which makes Hill’s selection as vice chair a little curious.