When Rep. Elijah Cummings announced Tuesday that he would forgo a Senate run and seek reelection to the House seat he has held for two decades, he cited the need for “strong, progressive leadership up and down the ticket” from his hometown of Baltimore to the White House.
Left unmentioned was the reluctance of Cummings to relinquish his grasp on a hard-earned public megaphone as the Democratic point-man on the House’s main investigative committee, where he has thrived in blunting Republican attacks on President Obama and in elevating his own pet issues.
By all accounts, Cummings would have run a competitive Senate campaign — a Baltimore Sun poll published in November showed him leading the declared Democratic candidates — but a pair of high-profile hearings this week show what the 65-year-old would have risked.
On Wednesday, he led Democrats training their fury on the state government failures that allowed the water crisis to fester in Flint, Mich. And on Thursday, he will tangle before cameras with some of the most highly scrutinized players in the pharmaceutical industry — including Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old “bad boy” of pharmaceuticals.
The drug hearing will be especially rewarding for Cummings, coming seven months after he first pushed Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to explore why companies were instituting huge price increases on certain older but crucial drugs — and five years after he first probed the pharmaceutical industry’s pricing practices.
“There is something about this issue that just gnaws at me 24-7,” Cummings said in an interview. “I told [Republicans] from the beginning, this is my No. 1 issue.”
In Shkreli, Cummings has found an almost-too-perfect foil for his long-running pharma probe: a young, unapologetic executive who, when he was chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, was responsible for a 5,000 percent increase in the price of Daraprim, a drug that has been around for 62 years. Shkreli has spent his wealth on such showy purchases as his own personal $2 million Wu-Tang Clan album.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), agreed in December to call the hearing and subpoena Shkreli; a current Turing executive and the interim leader of another closely scrutinized firm, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, will join him.
Shkreli, who is facing federal securities fraud charges, has vowed on Twitter and in several recent interviews to invoke the Fifth Amendment and has mocked lawmakers, including Cummings, seeking to put him under klieg lights.
“It’s nothing more than an advertisement for some congressmen who want to get some votes and some cheap publicity off my name,” he told Bloomberg News. “What Congress is doing is just a ploy to embarrass me.”
The image of pharmaceutical executives invoking their right to avoid self-incrimination will stand as a rare political victory for the Democrats on a GOP-controlled committee — and it is the latest in a series of high-profile moments Cummings has helped arrange in his five years as the ranking Democratic on the oversight committee.
For instance, it was Cummings who publicly introduced Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University graduate student willing to speak out about including contraception in health insurance coverage. More recently, he played the leading role in defusing the GOP-led investigation into the Benghazi attacks — giving a memorable denunciation of the proceedings during October’s day-long Hillary Clinton testimony.
The Maryland Democrat also led the Democratic pushback on Republican investigations into the Internal Revenue Service and into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” program — both of which have become hot-button issues among conservatives.
But now its the drug companies that are front-and-center. Cummings said he has been left unamused by Shkreli’s antics, which included a tweet accusing Cummings of a “disgusting & insulting” attempt to “subvert my constitutional right to the 5th amendment.”
“I’ve been on this committee now going on 21 years,” Cummings said. “I’ve never seen anyone thumb their nose at Congress the way Mr. Shkreli is doing it.”
On Tuesday, Cummings released excerpts from more than 300,000 pages of documents Democrats gathered from Turing and Valeant. They include letters from hospitals and doctors begging for relief from the price hikes, as well as emails showing that Shkreli was privately focused on the profit implications of the Daraprim price increase — not, as he argued publicly, on the research and development resources it might generate. “$1 bn here we come,” he wrote in one email.
Cummings said the decision to subpoena Shkreli’s testimony despite his intention to take the Fifth was Chaffetz’s call, not his own. But Cummings said he supported it.
“Look, I’m a lawyer, I practiced for many years, and so I believe in the Fifth Amendment,” he said. “At the same time, I think we need to be aware of how our neighbors throughout the country are suffering. … Even if he just sits there, maybe he’ll get a chance to read some of these letters if he hasn’t read them before, and maybe it will help Turing begin to face the fact that they can’t continue to do this.”
Chaffetz said Wednesday he saw no need for Shkreli to plead the Fifth, given that his questions will pertain to drug pricing and not to the securities case. “We’re not here just for the spectacle of it,” he said.
He also praised Cummings and his decision to stay in the House: “I disagree with him on most things, but he’s as honest as they get.”
Cummings expects to play his role for years to come should — as he predicts — another Democratic president succeeds Obama: “I know our main function is supposed to make sure the government functions properly. But another function has basically been to make sure the administration is treated fairly.”
On Tuesday, Cummings brushed back Republican efforts to pin the Flint crisis on the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than on the state officials that made key decisions releasing toxic lead levels into the city’s drinking water. The preacher’s son did so in his usual way, casting a partisan battle in a more high-minded light.
“This is not a political issue; this is a moral issue,” he thundered. “Our children are the living messages we send to a future we will ever see. … Will we rob them of their destiny? Will we rob them of their dreams? No — we will not do that.”
Those remarks won kudos even from Chaffetz, who has collaborated with Cummings on several matters since taking the committee gavel last year, most notably the Secret Service lapses.
“You should have applauded that,” Chaffetz told a quiet hearing room after Cummings finished, prompting a roar.
On Thursday, Cummings’s task will be to keep attention focused on the practices of the pharmaceutical industry at large — not on what he says are likely attempts to paint Turing and Valeant as outliers.
“Most companies are probably not like Turing and Valeant with regard to this issue,” he said. “But when you have them and others going up 5,000 times, what does that say to the guy who is trying to do the right thing and says, ‘You know what? We were planning to raising this cost 10 percent, but if they’re raising their cost 1,000 percent, what’s wrong with 25 or 30?’ ”
Cummings said Republicans ought to be as concerned as Democrats considering the federal expenditures involved. He won bipartisan support last year for a measure to limit price hikes on generic drugs purchased through Medicaid.
“Who is paying? By and large it is the government,” he said. “Our tax dollars are paying to line the pockets of people like Shkreli so he can buy the Wu-Tang album or things of that nature, and that’s not right. It’s like blood money. … When you jack up the prices like this, you can guarantee that there are people who are going to die because of your greed. To me, that’s sickening.”