With Democrats back in the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park is now “Mr. Chairman.”
Raskin, who last month was elected to the House Democratic leadership, Thursday added to his new clout: He will chair a new subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, with jurisdiction over civil rights and civil liberties issues. He was appointed by a fellow Marylander, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, who will chair the full Oversight and Reform Committee.
Raskin already was committed to serving on three other committees, and had been planning to leave the Oversight and Reform panel – where he served during his first term– due to an already heavy workload.
It is unusual for House members to serve on more than three committees.
“Chairman Cummings is an extremely persuasive guy…and he convinced me this was no time to leave the Oversight committee. It may be the most important moment in the Oversight Committee’s history,” Raskin said in a telephone interview Thursday night.
Raskin was alluding to the fact that the Oversight and Reform panel will be utilized by the new House Democratic majority to conduct numerous investigations of the administration of President Donald Trump.
“And [Cummings] also convinced me that I would be able to manage these different committee assignments,” added Raskin, who will continue to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, where he was named Thursday as vice chair of the Constitution Subcommittee.
The Judiciary Committee would have jurisdiction in the event of a presidential impeachment proceeding. Raskin spent more than a quarter of a century as a constitutional law professor at American University before his election to Congress in 2016 from Montgomery County’s 8th District.
In addition, Raskin will remain on the House Administration Committee, where he served during the last Congress, and was named earlier this month as a member of the House Rules Committee, which determines the procedures under which bills reaching the full House will be debated.
Raskin said he has made no final decisions about the hearings and investigations that his new panel – the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties – will undertake in the coming session.
However, the committee’s jurisdiction includes the U.S. Census Bureau. “I’m actively exploring hearings on the citizenship question and the census,” said Raskin, referring to the Trump administration’s controversial plan to ask about citizenship status during the forthcoming 2020 census.
A federal judge recently blocked the Census Bureau from posing the question, but Raskin added, “The problem is that they’re trying to appeal to the Supreme Court. We would like to put the nail in the coffin for the ill-fated citizenship question, and…demonstrate how the question was not in any way generated by the Department of Justice’s voting rights section, but rather was a clear political plant by the White House.”
Prior to Raskin being named to chair the subcommittee, Cummings announced earlier this week that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – whose department includes the Census Bureau – had agreed to appear in front of the Oversight and Reform Committee in March to answer questions about this matter.
Other issues on which Raskin said he is considering hearings and probes include:
– “Disenfranchisement of American citizens” in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. At present, adult residents of the District of Columbia can vote for president but not elect representatives to Congress, while Puerto Ricans lack the ability to vote for either of these offices.
– “Hate crimes and domestic terrorism.” Last October’s shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, in which 11 were killed, has prompted debate over whether the federal government should change its laws to put violence against minorities, religious groups and other segments of the domestic public in a category similar to that of international terrorism.
– “Separation of families and children at the border” – which inspired intense controversy last year before the Trump administration retreated from that policy along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We never had a meaningful hearing in the House about what was taking place, and we still don’t have a good sense of the situation,” Raskin said, alluding to when the Republicans controlled the House prior to last November’s election.
Meanwhile, Raskin’s continued tenure on the House Administration Committee will put him in the midst of consideration of what he termed the House Democratic majority’s “single biggest legislation of our first year – the omnibus democracy reform package.”
That legislation, which bears the politically symbolic designation of H.R. 1, is a package of campaign finance reforms, stronger ethics laws and increased voter registration mechanisms. Its chief sponsor is Rep. John Sarbanes of Towson, whose congressional district includes part of the eastern section of Montgomery County.
Unlike most House committees, assignment to the House Administration and House Rules panels involve direct appointment by the speaker.
Raskin’s membership on both reflects his election last month to the House Democratic leadership – as a representative of legislators who have served five terms of less – as well as his increasing political closeness to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Raskin said his appointment to the Rules Committee earlier this month came after Pelosi and Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern of Massachusetts “reached out to me about it.” While he hadn’t been seeking the assignment, “the more I looked into it, the more irresistible I found the whole thing,” Raskin said. “You get to interpret, enforce and write the rules of the House of Representatives…and it exposes you to every piece of legislation coming to the floor.”
There is a downside to Rules Committee membership: As the House holds late night sessions in the course of the year, it is not unusual for the Rules panel to meet at all hours to pass the procedures necessary to move bills to the floor. “Many colleagues have told me they would never go on the Rules Committee because of the late night meetings. But I’m a night owl anyway,” Raskin chuckled.
Unlike many of his colleagues who spend hours flying back to their home districts each week, Raskin said his short commute from Takoma Park to Capitol Hill will help in managing his increased workload. “This is the advantage of being a local member,” he said.
And he exuded the enthusiasm of a student at the start of the school term. “This is my absolute dream package of committee assignments,” Raskin declared. He noted that many junior members of Congress aspire to a seat on one of the so-called “exclusive committees” such as Appropriations or Ways and Means. “But that’s not my dream,” he added. “I’m livin’ my dream here.”