WASHINGTON -- As Capitol Hill power struggles go, it may seem penny-ante. But for freshman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, the stakes are high.
After just 10 months in the House, Cummings is in line to become the leading Democrat on a congressional subcommittee. There is, though, a hitch.
Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont -- the lone independent in Congress -- received a letter last year from House Democratic leaders backing his bid for a top subcommittee position based on his seniority and his long support of the Democratic agenda.
Since the issue arose late last month, Cummings has lobbied Democratic leaders, arguing that the job is his because party rules do not provide for giving such positions to those who are not Democrats.
"In the end, according to the technical rules of our caucus, this ranking [position] is his," said Anthony W. McCarthy, Cummings' communications director. "The idea that we have to lobby for a position against a non-Democrat is part of the problem."
But Sanders said yesterday that party leaders pledged to give him a top position on a subcommittee when his time came.
"It would seem to me to be almost incomprehensible that they would now renege on an agreement that they have signed and supported for six years," said Sanders, a Socialist who just began his fourth term in the House.
At stake is the top Democratic seat on a subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. The position represents a foothold on the party's leadership ladder within the committee. The panel handles topics ranging from the federal work force and the U.S. Postal Service to the regulation of utilities and the mysterious ailments suffered by Persian Gulf war veterans.
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt was working with other party leaders last night to resolve the dispute before a meeting of all the Democratic House members today, according to McCarthy.
Cummings maintains that the 1996 letter from party leaders does not apply to the current Congress because it was written last term. Sanders, though, points out that the letter to him, dated Sept. 26, states that if he is re-elected to Congress, Democratic leaders "will support your claim for seniority as it applies to a subcommittee Chair/Ranking Member post."
The letter was signed by all 10 members of the Democratic leadership team, including Gephardt, who is from Missouri, and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, who co-chairs the Democratic Steering Committee and represents Southern Maryland and part of Prince George's County.
Cummings represents Maryland's 7th District, which includes much of eastern and downtown Baltimore and all of West Baltimore and western Baltimore County.
Pub Date: 2/12/97