WASHINGTON – As Rep. Elijah E. Cummings’ first anniversary in Congress approaches, he is preparing to do something he has never done in the House of Representatives: introduce legislation.
The Baltimore Democrat said he hopes to introduce two bills by the end of this week. One would create a 14-member panel to analyze and evaluate drug programs for the president and Congress. The other would allow Congress to pressure foreign governments to waive immunity for diplomats who commit serious crimes in the United States.
Cummings, 46, said introducing legislation shows he has fully adjusted to the job.
“There are three phases one goes through as a new legislator,” he said. “The first is just being happy to be here. The second stage is learning all the procedural rules of Congress. And the third is becoming a good legislator.”
He said the first phase was over about a month after he was swept into Congress April 16 in a special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume.
Cummings said it took him about three or four months to learn the rules and processes of Congress. He credited the Maryland Legislature – where he served for 13 years as a delegate, most recently as speaker pro tem – with preparing him for these basics.
But the Legislature did not teach him enough about party politics, which he had to learn before he could begin advancing a legislative agenda, he said.
Cummings said the sharp partisan division on Capitol Hill is quite different than the collegiality of the Maryland Legislature.
Because the Maryland Legislature is so lopsidedly Democratic – 132 Democrats to 56 Republicans in the House of Delegates – Republicans must make a real effort to get along with the majority party to get things accomplished, said Rep. Constance Morella, a Bethesda Republican who, like Cummings, has served in both the Statehouse and Congress.
But the makeup of the House of Representatives is more even – 207 Democrats to 227 Republicans – and partisan fights are common.
Since joining Congress, Cummings has developed a reputation as a legislator who stands up for what he believes in.
“He has the connection to the people in power and the people in the streets, and he represents the district very well,” said Frank Reid, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore and a Democratic primary competitor.
Added David Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Party, “Cummings does a decent job of representing the district.”
Cummings’ voting record has been consistently liberal. He voted to increase the minimum wage; to allow illegal immigrants to attend public schools; and to increase aid to the homeless.
He opposed the welfare reform act passed last August because, he said, it pushes people off welfare after two years without providing adequate job training or job creation.
He was one of the first congressmen to call for special investigative hearings into the disputed allegations of a CIA role in the rising use of crack cocaine. He got a flood of constituent phone calls and letters asking for an investigation, a spokesman said.
Cummings said he is drafting the bill calling for an advisory panel on drugs because they are a significant problem facing his largely urban 7th District, which stretches from the center of Baltimore to the western edge of Baltimore County.
He is drafting the second bill, on foreign diplomats, because he said people should be held accountable for their actions. The impetus for the measure was the five-car accident Jan. 3 at Dupont Circle in Washington. On that Friday night, Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze slammed into the rear of a car stopped at a red light, causing a chain reaction that left a 16-year-old Kensington girl dead.
Cummings’ bill says in cases where physical harm or personal financial hardship befall Americans due to the actions of a diplomat, Congress would have the power to use sanctions to pressure the foreign government into waiving the diplomat’s immunity from prosecution.
Cummings’ job in Congress has not come without a few adjustments. He said the biggest change was the switch from being a part-time legislator to a full-time one.
The Maryland General Assembly session is just 90 days long and Cummings juggled that work with his Baltimore law practice.
Congress meets year-round. Although he gave up the law practice, he said he works 12 hours nearly every weekday and four or five hours on Saturday and Sunday, giving speeches to local churches and civic groups.
Despite these long hours, certain things have not changed. He still drives a 1991 Acura, which now has more than 200,000 miles on it. He still lives in the same Baltimore town house in Madison Park that he has owned for the last 14 years.
And he still goes through the same morning ritual: he downs some Special K cereal, two slices of wheat toast, a glass of orange juice and a cup of tea before leaving home just after 6:30 a.m. to pick up his 14-year-old daughter to drive her to school. He is separated from the daughter’s mother. Cummings does not see himself as a lifelong legislator. But he said he hopes people will say, “While he was there, he made a difference.” -30-