Ed Towns will give up his post as the Democratic ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, setting up a potential battle for that spot, opposite Darrell Issa, who has promised vigorous and probably endless oversight of the Obama Administration.

There was plenty of belief inside the Democratic caucus that Towns was not cut out for the job. He never effectively dealt with Issa while chairing the Oversight Committee in 2009-10, and most believed he didn’t have the temperament to counteract Issa’s expected charge and constant stream of subpoenas. Democrats wanted a more effective communicator in that position.

But the question becomes, who will get the nod? By seniority, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has the inside track. However, FDL News has learned that Towns will support Elijah Cummings (D-MD) for the position, his fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has also expressed an interest in the post.

I actually like Cummings, as well as the other members vying for the position. But it’s curious to see a CBC member try and leapfrog his way into a ranking membership. Historically, CBC members are very solicitous of the seniority system. One reason for this is that their veteran lawmakers, most of whom are in safe seats and can build up seniority over the years, have been able to secure several chairmanships that way. In fact, it’s how Ed Towns got the gig on Oversight. Seniority isn’t sacrosanct and really it shouldn’t be – look at Henry Waxman knocking out John Dingell on the Energy and Commerce Committee. But for CBC, it has been that way.

In a similar kind of battle, Chakah Fattah (D-PA) was denied the CBC endorsement for the ranking membership on the Appropriations committee in favor of Norm Dicks (D-WA), specifically because of the seniority system. CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee said it outright just a few days ago:

“Members of the Congressional Black Caucus strongly support maintaining the seniority system for selecting committee leadership. The seniority system has served the Democratic Caucus well and has ushered in an era of diverse committee leadership, which is an asset to our party and our nation,” current CBC Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), said in a statement.

But when a woman could get the ranking membership at Oversight, that consistent stance has to change in favor of a CBC member?

To be clear, the CBC isn’t supporting Cummings, at least not yet. But Towns is certainly trying to engineer the vote for him. This isn’t about who would be more effective as the ranking member, per se, so much as the consistency of the matter. All things being equal, with Maloney as capable and effective as Cummings or Kucinich, it’s a stretch for Towns to try to subvert the system which got him his chairmanship in 2009.

Incidentally, Maloney backed Towns for the ranking membership previously, specifically because of the seniority issue.

UPDATE: Kucinich has taken himself out of the running, and will support Cummings for the spot. From his press release:

“When I announced my candidacy for Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, I did so out of concern for a strong Democratic response Chairman Issa. Even before I announced my candidacy, I made it clear to members across the caucus that I thought that Congressman Cummings would be able to meet the challenge, and that if he was a candidate, I would support him.

“My bid has never been about my own personal advancement. It has been about protecting the oversight process from abuse. Mr. Cummings is well prepared for the challenge. Tomorrow, I will recommend to the Steering and Policy Committee and to the Democratic Caucus that they choose Mr. Cummings as Ranking Member.

“I have accomplished what I have set out to do, and that is to make sure that Democrats will have a very strong hand in the oversight process,” said Kucinich.

Sure looks like the fix is in for Carolyn Maloney.

David Dayen

David Dayen