Who will fill the leadership void left by Elijah Cummings in the Trump impeachment inquiry?

Kurt Bardella, Opinion columnist

The absence of Rep. Elijah Cummings, the late chairman of the House Oversight Committee, looms large as Democrats move forward with impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

It’s been widely reported that Republicans may maneuver Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows onto the House Intelligence Committee, two of Trump's chief defenders, so they can participate in the first public impeachment hearings this week. I can’t help but think that if Cummings were alive today, Democrats would add him to the panel as a counterweight.

The hard reality is there is no way to replace all the things that Cummings brought to his role. But Democrats have a responsibility to Cummings' memory to choose a successor who can help finish the work he devoted his final days to doing.

We’ve seen in recent congressional hearings, with witnesses as defiant as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and as reluctant as former special counsel Robert Mueller, how important it is to have a leader who can keep control, fend off Republican procedural attacks with poise, deal with hostile witnesses, stay on message, speak forcefully, and put forward lines of inquiry that advance investigations.

These are not normal times

Democrats would be wise to fill Cummings' spot with the person they believe can do the best job, regardless of seniority or the traditional inside-baseball metrics they normally rely on. These are not normal times and the new chair will need procedural knowledge as well as courtroom expertise and media savvy. Whoever it is must be prepared for the kind of insolence we’ve seen from Trump-friendly witnesses like Lewandowski and the disruptive parliamentary antics we’ve seen from Trump’s brigade of oversight defenders.

After the 2010 midterm elections swept Republicans back into the majority, Democrats were preparing for a congressional onslaught aimed at fulfilling Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to make Barack Obama a one-term president. My boss at the time, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, was preparing to ascend to the chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee and declared his intention to hold “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.”

Adam Schiff on impeachment's next phase: Trump betrayed America. Soon the public will hear from patriots who defended it.

Democrats in Congress knew that they needed a tough, disciplined and smart foil to keep Issa in check. The panel’s immediate past chairman, Ed Towns of New York, was in the twilight of his congressional career and said then-Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pushed him out. Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York (now the acting chair) and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio expressed interest in the position, but the Democratic leaders believed Cummings would be the most formidable check on Issa and the Republicans.

They were right.

Reps. Elijah Cummings and Darrell Issa on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 18, 2013.

In many ways, Cummings was the polar opposite of the Republican chairman. Issa was driven, in part, by the pursuit of the limelight, while Cummings avoided it. Issa tended to let his instincts drive him, sometimes resulting in rhetorical overreach, like the time he declared on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show that President Barack Obama was “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times” — a statement he would later back off.

If you ever watched an Oversight Committee hearing during the Issa years, you would have noticed that Issa inevitably ditched his prepared opening remarks and began speaking extemporaneously. Cummings was, by contrast, the embodiment of on-message discipline. Everything he said was deliberate and with purpose. There were no surprises. He was always prepared. Issa was much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants personality. All reporters covering Capitol Hill knew they could get to Issa by just waiting near the House floor or the elevator banks at his office.

From scores of staffers: How we will remember our boss, Chairman Elijah Cummings: Moral clarity in all he did

As I’ve watched Trump’s presidency unfold, I have thought countless times that his style reminds me of Issa. Trump, like Issa, tends to speak first and ask questions later. During turbulent times, both would rather double down on their first instincts than retreat or regroup. In moments of confrontation, they’ll embrace the fight instead of seeking the path of de-escalation — like the time Issa cut off Cummings’ microphone.

Cummings' battles with Issa were in many ways his best preparation for dealing with Trump. Nothing illustrated that more than how Cummings forcefully and eloquently responded to Trump’s racist attacks against him and the city of Baltimore. 

Maloney, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia are actively seeking to succeed Cummings. The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee will endorse a candidate later this month. The question facing the committee, and all House Democrats, is who can best fill the huge void left by Cummings’ death.

Kurt Bardella, a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, was spokesperson and senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2013. Kurt left the Republican Party in 2017 and joined the Democratic Party. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment: Who will fill Elijah Cummings leadership void?