House members try a DIY preemptive bipartisanship

Rep. Jason Chaffetz wants Darrell Issa’s job, but he’s working to not be the next Darrell Issa


Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) speaks during the Utah Republican Party nominating convention on April 26 in Sandy, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The congressman scarfed down a stack of pancakes and bacon at a breakfast place near the water. He was preparing for a packed district workday.

First, an urban family center, followed by a town-hall-style session at a senior home. Then lunch and a tour of the University of Maryland hospital.

Nothing unusual about that schedule for a congressman who’s back working the district, but for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), it was anything but typical. For starters, these weren’t his constituents. They were thousands of miles away, and these voters were almost the opposite of those he represents: In Chaffetz’s district, Mitt Romney got 78 percent of the vote in 2012. In this district, President Obama got 75 percent.

But here Chaffetz was.

“I thought it was important that he understands what happens in our district,” explained Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the veteran House Democrat who represents Maryland’s 7th District, as he and Chaffetz hopped into a black SUV in Baltimore just before 9:30 a.m. on a recent morning.

What the white, Mormon Republican from Utah shares with the black, Baptist Democrat from Baltimore is a seat on the powerful House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform, which has been the venue for some of the fiercest partisan confrontations in Washington in the past three years. The day trip to Baltimore was an attempt to avoid that in the next Congress.

“I think the American people want us to work together,” Cummings said. “To get anything done, anything truly meaningful done, you have to have bipartisanship.”

In a Washington fully engulfed in partisan warfare, the Chaffetz-Cummings buddy day was an anomalous throwback to a time when members of Congress of different political parties not only spent time together off the clock, but genuinely liked one another.

Such relationships are rare to the point of almost extinction. And as members of the Oversight Committee, the two men have been at or near the center of some of the most contentious and partisan moments in Congress since Republicans took control of the House in 2011.

As the top Democrat on the committee, Cummings has clashed repeatedly with the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has antagonized the Obama administration, and Democrats in general, with a series of probes into everything from the 2012 killings in Benghazi, Libya, to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups.

Part of Chaffetz’s grand plan is to replace Issa as chairman of the committee in the next Congress.

“Chaffetz is a good guy,” Cummings, who has represented his Maryland district since 1996, assured residents at one stop on the tour. It is hard to imagine him declaring that about Issa.

“How many of you have heard of Congressman Issa?” Cummings asked to the roomful of senior citizens just before lunch.

When not a single hand went up, he thought better of his inquiry.

“Ah — never mind,” Cummings declared as he shook his hands in resignation, the expression on his face suggesting that it was better left not discussed.

Aides to both men insist that their relationship is less personally contentious than their public spats would suggest, and Cummings and Issa have worked in tandem on several high-profile investigations conducted by the committee.

“I really don’t think that, on a personal level, there is that much animosity,” said one Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about the relationship between the two congressmen.

But, publicly, the men have served as proxies time and time again as the Obama administration and House Republicans have engaged in trial by sound bite, with Issa delivering sharp critiques of the administration as Cummings jumps to its defense.

The hostile relationship between Cummings and Issa hit its boiling point in March, when Issa abruptly ended a committee hearing on the IRS scandal, cut off Cummings’s microphone while he was speaking and walked out of the room.

Cummings continued, with raised voice, as Issa led the committee’s Republican members out of the hearing.

That clash led the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Cummings is a member, to call for Issa’s resignation.

Friction between Issa and Cummings, neither of whom has established a reputation for diplomacy, stands in contrast to other committee leaders who have found ways to collaborate on controversial issues. That near-constant friction between the two comes despite the fact that, in a gesture similar to that happening now between Cummings and Chaffetz, Issa held one of his first hearings as oversight chairman in Baltimore in 2011.

Both congressmen noted that, as powerful members of their respected caucuses, building a relationship is in their best interest — and district visits to the home towns of other House members is not exactly a rarity.

But for Chaffetz, the trip was also part of his deliberate and transparent play for the chairmanship of the powerful Oversight Committee.

Chaffetz hopes to edge out fellow Republicans Michael R. Turner of Ohio and John L. Mica of Florida to succeed Issa, who is term-limited as committee chairman. If Republicans hold on to the House, as they are widely expected to do, this committee chairmanship is likely to remain one of the most powerful and high-profile perches in the House during the final two years of the Obama administration.

But political motives aside, the day also provided rich cultural lessons for Chaffetz, a window into a world far different from the rural plains and national parks that make up his Utah district. Chaffetz noted the brown-brick rowhouses that dotted the downtown streets, calling them “brownstones.”

“We don’t have anything like those back in Utah,” Chaffetz said.

Later, a constituent asked Cummings what he would do to address the “food desert” that engulfs much of the district, using the term commonly used to describe the lack of access or availability to nutritious food in many urban areas.

“What’s that?” Chaffetz asked, leaning over to Cummings. “I’ve never heard of that.”

And throughout the day, the nine-term Democrat, who was greeted by waving constituents who ran up for handshakes and pictures anytime the crown of his shaved head was spotted in the summer sunlight, continually vouched for his eager-faced visitor.

In Baltimore, Cummings’s voice was at first soft, understated until it transitioned into a rapidly fluctuating roar, delivered with the rhythmic cadence and pacing steps of a preacher.

Chaffetz sat alert in his chair, leaning forward and eagerly taking notes during several of the stops in Baltimore. At one stop, the two toured the Center for Urban Families, a neighborhood organization that provides job training and career consulting, among other services.

“I just want you to know that I’m very proud of you,” Cummings told a room of students — many with previous brushes with the law — who were participating in a job-placement program, during a forceful and impromptu speech that left many in the room in tears. “There are not enough people who see themselves going in the wrong direction and have the audacity to turn around. Some go a lifetime never achieving the things that God meant for them to achieve. So I want to thank all of you for inspiring me.”

The center’s president, Joseph Jones, led the congressmen into the basement to see a garage where construction courses are taught, and an office President Obama used during his visit to the center to sign the “employee of the month” certificate hanging on the wall.

As they made their way to the door, the Utah congressman fished a business card out of his wallet, telling the center’s staff members that if there was ever anything he could do for them, he would be eager to help.

“If only we could clone Mr. Jones,” Chaffetz said as they exited. “We need more people like him.”

In Washington, Chaffetz has kept a low profile throughout the major House GOP upheaval of recent months.

An ally of the party’s House leadership, Chaffetz took his name out of consideration to head the Benghazi select committee. Days after the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Chaffetz was asked who he might support as the next majority leader.

“I’m just focused on becoming oversight chairman,” he said. Pressed some more, he said again, “I’m just focused on becoming chairman of the Oversight Committee.”

But both Cummings and Chaffetz said that — if Chaffetz’s campaign to replace Issa is successful — things will be different. The day-long tour through Baltimore will be followed later this year with a trip by Cummings to Utah, where the Baltimore Democrat will be schooled on land management issues and wild horses, among other issues in Chaffetz’s rural district.

“We may disagree, but I just don’t want to be disagreeable,” Chaffetz said, recycling a line that he often employs, when asked by a local television reporter whether there was anything he agrees with Cummings on.

“There are things that we’re going to disagree on,” Cummings chimed in. “I have no doubt that Congressman Chaffetz is a man of integrity. And there are things we’re going to disagree on.”

It didn’t take much longer for one of those divisive issues to surface.

With the two congressmen still standing together within the TV camera frame, the local reporter turned the topic to the ongoing investigation into the IRS.

“Come on! That just doesn’t pass the basic sniff test!” Chaffetz said of the agency’s actions, prompting a smile from Cummings.

“I can understand him saying that,” the elder congressman said.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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