It’s known as “the theater committee” for its high profile, high-drama role investigating President Donald Trump’s White House. And now, five of the fieriest Democratic freshmen in the House are players on that stage.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Hill, Rashida Tlaib and others now have seats on the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee — a sign that Democratic leaders want their social media savvy and star power front and center of investigations into the Trump administration. In return, the new members get a platform on which to polish their good-government bona fides. And the bet among senior Democrats is that more experienced committee members will help harness the newcomers’ energy, fame and know-how as the blandly-named panel turns its spotlight on the White House ahead of the 2020 elections.
“I consider myself to be a little bit of a justice and truth-teller,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., referring to her background on the Boston City Council. “I think I’m in good company.”
On the mission, yes. But the newcomers’ styles will depend in part on how solidly they won their districts in the November elections.
“Mine is going to be a very fact-based approach,” said Hill, a liaison to Democratic leaders who will serve as Cummings’ vice chairman and flipped a Republican stronghold in California. “I am not going to go in there with a set agenda as much as seeking the truth.”
Added Rep. Harley Rouda, a former Republican who also represents a swing California district: “We have an obligation as members of Congress to provide appropriate oversight regardless of whether it’s Republicans or Democrats or otherwise,” he said. Rouda called himself “somewhat centrist, and I’m going to carry that into that committee as well.”
It’s an apt home for the outspoken new members. Real-time drama — on matters ranging from former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Hurricane Katrina and steroids in sports — was the panel’s trademark long before Trump and the Democratic freshmen came to Washington.
“You walk in here, into the back room, you muster your righteous indignation and you step out on the stage and ask somebody: ‘How could you? What were you thinking? When did you first know?'” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a committee member and outspoken conservative who was appointed to the panel when Barack Obama was president. “You can make a grandma feel bad about making cookies for her grandkids.”
Though theatrical, the committee has real power to “at any time conduct investigations of any matter,” according to its charter, using as tools subpoenas and the fact that lying to Congress is a crime. And the new chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), is promising serious probes that could have consequences for Trump and administration officials who saw relatively little oversight under the Republican-led House. Cummings has promised to look at conflicts of interest within the administration and is one of several chairmen who will lead investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
The committee also is where Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was scheduled to testify next month on Trump, his links to Russia and hush money payments. Last week he delayed his appearance on the advice of his legal team, citing ongoing cooperation in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and threats against his family.
For now, Cummings is repeating two guiding words to keep the newcomers’ enthusiasm productive: “efficiency” and “effectiveness.”
“They are very articulate, they are very sharp,” said Cummings. “And I’m sure that working very closely with the leadership of our committee, that they will be disciplined about what they put out to the media.”
His comments reflect an acute awareness among senior Democrats that this group eschews a script and likes to improvise. Tlaib’s vow to impeach Trump on Day 1 of the new Congress ran afoul of Pelosi’s dictum to not speak of impeachment in any serious way at least until special counsel Robert Mueller reports on his Russia probe. Tlaib apologized for the distraction and, Cummings said, “realized that those comments do not lend themselves to my two major goals: being effective and efficient.”
For House Democratic leaders it was a forgivable offense. They opted to leverage the social media prowess and outspokenness of all five freshmen, including Tlaib, by giving them the platform of the oversight panel. Notably, Pelosi kept them off the Judiciary Committee, the body that is made up mostly of lawyers and that would handle any impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Cummings, the freshmen say, is encouraging them to speak up.
“He’s made very clear that a lot of what he wants to do with his leadership is to cultivate the talent and the potential within the committee and the party overall,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who said she wants to focus on immigrant protections and the environment. Cummings, she said, “wants to pass the ball a lot to many of the different members.”
For those who opt for a splashy confrontation, there’s plenty of precedent during Republican control. A joint meeting of the oversight and judiciary panels last year erupted into a yelling match virtually from the first question to former FBI Agent Peter Strzok.
There’s almost an art to the absurdity, Massie suggested. When his hypothetical grandma comes up with an answer about her cookies, “You say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve only got five minutes, I’ve got to move on to the next question. What about the applesauce?”