In an exclusive interview with the AFRO, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), discussed the events of a March 5 hearing held by House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, of which Cummings is the ranking member.
During the hearing, former IRS employee Lois Lerner was questioned on the agency’s alleged targeting of conservative political groups. Chairman Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.) posed questions for approximately 15 minutes, though Lerner had already invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to speak. When Cummings tried to take his turn, Issa adjourned the meeting, turned off Cummings’ microphone, and he and other Republicans filed out.
AFRO: How would you characterize Chairman Issa’s actions or behavior at the hearing on Wednesday?
CUMMINGS: They were disrespectful and counterproductive. There’s a rule that when—the majority in this instance—has an opportunity to ask questions, the other side is entitled to at least five minutes to talk about anything they want to talk about.
Chairman Issa had called Ms. Lerner in, knowing that she would assert the Fifth. He then proceeded to ask her 10 questions knowing she was going to answer each question by saying that I cannot answer at advice of counsel. He knew that, and she did just that—10 times. He then closed the hearing without Democrats having a chance to say one syllable; he would not allow us to say anything. And that is not the way you run a hearing in Washington, nor in any democracy.
AFRO: What do you think prompted Chairman Issa’s actions?
CUMMINGS: Mr. Issa had been involved in a discussion with Ms. Lerner’s attorney a week or so before the hearing. And they had been talking about something called a proffer, that is, the attorney was willing to say what Ms. Lerner would have said if she were to testify. So we would have at least have come out of the hearing knowing that. Democrats were not included in these private meetings with the attorney, so the only place I could ask about it was in the hearing. But, for some reason, Issa cut me off.
Although he claims he wants to hear what Ms. Lerner has to say, I don’t think he really does because he realizes that what she’s going to say is that the president has nothing to do with this so-called targeting of Tea Party groups; she would have said there was no White House involvement and that it was not about political reasons, period…. But the Republicans want to keep pushing, trying to prove something that is simply not true.
AFRO: Was this unprecedented behavior on Rep. Issa’s part?
CUMMINGS: About two or three weeks ago he did it to one of our members, Congressman [John] Tierney, he set his mike off. Now Tierney is White, and he did it to him, and there was protest from the committee. So this is the second time within the last month that he’s done this. But you don’t see this on other committees.
AFRO: As a congressman who has been on the Hill for a while, has this ever happened to you before, and if not, how did it feel?
CUMMINGS: I felt such a disappointment that, in 2014, that this member of Congress, who has a tremendous amount of power, would abuse that power by cutting off debate and trying to silence the members of the Democratic Party. There are countries where their democracy is not as strong as ours or where they have not been a democracy for as long as we have where this would never happen. And so I think it sets a dangerous precedent.
AFRO: What, if any, discussion have you had with Rep. Issa since the hearing on Wednesday?
CUMMINGS: He called me yesterday evening [March 6] to discuss some matters that are coming up next week, and some voting we had to do in the committee, and at the very end of the conversation he said, ‘I just wanted you to know I’m sorry.’
AFRO: Did you think it was a genuine apology?
CUMMINGS: Yes, I do, but I don’t know how long it’s going to last. That’s the problem. But we’ll see.
AFRO: Despite that apology do you think—as some Democrats have called for—that Chairman Issa should lose his chairmanship?
CUMMINGS: I don’t want to get into that because I think that’s up to the Republicans; they have to make that determination. But I don’t think we should have people sitting in chairmanships who do not know how to respect members on both sides of the aisle. If I could not respect my Republican colleagues I would not want to be chairman, because I realize if I’m the chairman, I’m chairman of the entire committee. And, the integrity of that committee would depend on me trying to work with my colleagues and respecting them so that we can come up with the best products.
AFRO: What are the broader implications of Rep. Issa’s actions as it regards protocol and civility in Congress?
CUMMINGS: I’m hoping that all of the Congress would look at this and understand that this is bigger than Elijah Cummings, this is about the way our democracy should function. This is about the way the minority party should have a voice. This is about the way that every member of our Congress, each of whom serves 700,000 people, should be respected. We just cannot go forward and continue to be a Congress where the minority is totally disrespected and basically told, ‘You can be present, but we don’t want you to say anything.’ That’s ridiculous.