The political landscape changed dramatically on Nov. 2 for Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the audacious, skip-to-his-own-beat Philadelphia lawmaker hoping for tightened polls that evening — just enough to hold off an expected Republican takeover of the House.
His original plan was to embark on an ambitious, long shot bid for Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, overseeing $1.4 trillion in discretionary funding and finding ways to push education as a top priority.
As the Grand Old Party amassed big gains that night, plans changed.
That didn't really deter Fattah from his dream to run things on "Approps" as Capitol Hill rats affectionately abbreviate it. He simply went into minority ranking member mode, still intent on openly defying the Democratic Party's Congressional seniority system.
Selection based on years served seemed like a simple formula long observed by Democrats. It worked to the favor of the quiet and senescent Rep. Norm Dicks, D-WA, who was next in line after retiring Appropriations Chair Rep. David Obey, D-WI.
Hopes for ranking member glory were dashed, however, when Fattah's own Congressional Black Caucus gave the appearance of an endorsement for Dicks, who is White and has served in the House since 1976. It was a saddening and unexpected blow to Fattah, himself a longtime CBC Member.
"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-Calif., said in a statement released by POLITICO.
But, CBC spokesman J. Jioni Palmer disputes the authenticity of that statement. Dismissive of the reports and flatly denying any Caucus endorsement of Dicks, Palmer seemed annoyed by the question. "Reporters don't know everything," he retorted.
Still, observers argue that it makes sense, a shrewd and calculated move by the Caucus to ensure the integrity of the seniority system. Without it, many CBC Members wouldn't have had their chance to chair influential committees: from Bennie Thompson, D-MI, on Homeland Security to Charlie Rangel, D-NY, formerly chairing Ways and Means.
The venerable Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, is still stone locked into Judiciary and Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-NY, held on as Chair of Government Reform. Turning on a native son to save the family seemed like an essential move since many CBC Members have been in the Congress long enough to assume an impressive number of leadership roles on influential committees.
At the end of the Democratic-led 111th Congress, there are four CBC House Committee Chairs and 18 subcommittee chairs. When Republicans take control in January, most — if not all — will transition into the Ranking Member role.
Fattah, however, was congratulatory in a statement on Dicks' win. "I look forward to working with him and our colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to advance an agenda for the American people. I know that our leadership team, led by Norm, will be united as we head into the 112th Congress."
And, in a conversation with the Tribune, he seemed pleased with his conciliation prize: ranking member of House Appropriation's subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, a decent look worth $70 billion in discretionary funding and a chance to transcend the urban politics typically associated with Philly's most senior Congressional Member.
"Competition is a good thing," said Fattah, particularly jovial that the controversial tax cut deal he endorsed in opposition to the CBC was about to pass.
But, the CBC remains in a state of constant, traumatic flux, struggling to regain or maintain influence on a scarred post-midterm battlefield. After weeks of uncertainty and a mountain of speculation, Towns suddenly withdrew himself from consideration as Ranking Member of the Government Reform Committee.
It was a move contradicting earlier stands from weeks before when Towns insisted he would take on incoming Republican Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ambitious California pol vowing to conduct non-stop, Eliot Ness-like investigations into White House inner workings and other issues stirring the Beltway gossip pot.
Towns had promised a spirited defense of the administration as Ranking Member, at times using Brooklyn brawl vernacular and political threats. But, there were lingering doubts from both House Democratic leaders and the White House that Towns would not be aggressive enough, citing examples when Issa appeared to best the low key New York Congressman.
That suddenly left two CBC ranking members on powerful House Committees: Thompson on Homeland Security and founding Member Conyers on Judiciary. Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Towns' New York delegation member, was poised to fill the spot with little noise made.
But, in a recent 119-61 caucus vote, Democrats made the unusual move of confirming Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, as ranking member, another CBC member only one step behind Maloney who — like Fattah — seemed happy to buck the seniority system.
Again, the CBC's spot was blown. Would they go with the natural choice of Cummings, the most senior African American Member from Maryland or would party loyalty reign supreme?
The vote was significant considering Democrats typically observe the seniority system. And Maloney was reportedly "bitter" about the vote, expecting CBC compliance with party rule.
But, Hill sources expressed frustration with Towns leadership as Chair of the Committee during the last two sessions of Congress. Administration officials feared the Brooklyn lawmaker would not be able to withstand the onslaught of inquiries expected from Issa.
However, Democrats saw an immediate opportunity once Cummings announced his plan to run: a proven Baltimore brawler willing to box and undercut Republicans when needed. Many quietly considered Maloney as somewhat soft and unfocused.
"He will not out-work me and he will not out-maneuver me," Cummings reportedly said about Issa during conversations with Democratic colleagues before the vote. "I come from a tough place."
With the selection of Cummings as ranking member and Issa chairing, observers predict Government Reform will be one of the more bombastic in recent memory given the reputations of both lawmakers.
Issa is the clean-cut and disarmingly affable, yet unapologetic conservative livewire who refers to the Obama Administration as "corrupt and arrogant." To the left of the ring is Cummings, a well-known "bulldog" and fierce legislator legendary for his keep-it-real style and famous blasting of Committee hearing witnesses. Both are expected to battle for Committee microphone as the 112th Congress gets underway with Republicans eager to flex political muscle into the next election cycle.
"I think we've got to hold this administration to a high standard," said Cummings to reporters after the vote. "But at the same time, we've got to be fair, we've got to be reasonable and we cannot abuse the process." The Maryland Congressman referred to a time during the Clinton Administration when Republicans were in power and "… it seemed like we had a new investigation every few weeks."
When asked how Issa would chair the Committee in the new political climate, spokesman Frederick Hill responded that "rigorous government oversight is something that's going to happen."
"Being a tough watchdog and being collegial is mutually exclusive," said Hill in describing the relationship between Cummings and Issa.
Would Issa use Government Reform as a political leveraging tool, dangling the prospect of fewer subpoenas as a way to gain concessions from House Democrats and the White House? Hill refutes that: "The top concern here is what can government do differently that can get this economy back on track."