Like my late colleague, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, who represented the people of the 7th Congressional District of Maryland for more than two decades, I know that serving as chair of a congressional committee brings with it a myriad of challenges and responsibilities.
Cummings, at age 68, chaired the powerful committee investigating wrongdoing in our government . Hours before his death, he signed subpoenas for documents regarding the ability of immigrants with severe health problems to remain in the United States. He slipped away Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in his beloved Baltimore, a city where he attended law school and where his mother and father birthed a ministry. While ill for a time, he never complained. His health failing, he used a walker and a scooter to navigate the corridors of power. When he could not attend meetings called by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he participated by phone from a hospital bed.
Chairman Cummings loved serving. He adored the people of this country and found solace in the principles of our democracy and in the foundations upon which they stand. With a booming baritone voice he expressed outrage when presented with evidence of acts that clashed with the best principles and practices of our government and its policies.
“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on,” he tweeted this past summer as constitutional safeguards came under increasing attack. “Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children, and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn, we’ve got to guard this moment…this is our watch.”
He felt strongly about a comprehensive voter protection bill passed by the House early this year (and now in Senate limbo), including committing Congress to fixing the badly damaged Voting Rights Act of 1965 and closing loopholes allowing former members of Congress to avoid cooling-off periods for lobbying: “Voting is crucial, and I don’t give a damn how you look at it: There are efforts to stop people from voting. That’s not right. This is not Russia. This is the United States of America.”
He was relentless in pursuit of the truth and sought a balance between divergent political positions. Yet, as former Republican colleague Trey Gowdy wrote, he could disagree with others without being disagreeable. Then again, when asked why Cummings pushed himself when it obvious he was ailing, a former colleague said: “He was on a mission!”
He told a newspaper reporter during a hospital stay that he knew he was living on borrowed time. Yet Cummings was on a mission and wouldn’t quit till he fulfilled promises he made to those who elected him and those who stood with him in the fight for justice and fairness.
My dear friend and colleague has departed. He will never make another speech from the well of the House nor will he vote on the floor. But his presence remains. His spirit will encourage. His passion will provide us with direction and peace during the turbulence life and politics can bring.