WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 as a prosecutor. "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 payments to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels. 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.
US Representatives with the lowest net worths in Congress - 2018
US Representatives with the lowest net worths in Congress - 2018
10. Tim Scott
Net worth: -$600,000
Senator Tim Scott has been serving South Carolina since 2013. The Republican lawmaker previously represented the state in the House from 2011 to 2013, and he’s up for re-election in 2022.
Scott’s net worth was calculated based on assets that can help his net worth estimated at $200,000 and liabilities of $800,000. A current breakdown of his financial situation wasn’t available, but his 2015 financial disclosure report posted on OpenSecrets.org listed assets including two residential rental properties, insurance policies and annuities and several mutual funds. At the time, his liabilities stemmed primarily from three mortgages.
(Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)
9. Eliot L. Engel
Net worth: -$600,000
Representative Eliot Engel has been serving New York’s 16th district since 2013. The Democrat represented the state’s 17th district from 1993 to 2013 and its 19th district from 1989 to 1993. He’s up for re-election in 2018.
Engel’s net worth is based on assets estimated at $100,000 and liabilities of approximately $700,000. His assets include money in several bank accounts and multiple government bonds, according to his 2016 financial disclosure report posted on OpenSecrets.org. Two mortgages were listed as liabilities, along with $10,000 to $15,000 in credit card debt and a line of credit worth $100,001 to $250,000.
(lev radin / Shutterstock.com)
8. Mike D. Rogers
Net worth: -$600,000
Representative Mike D. Rogers has been serving Alabama’s third district since 2003. The Republican is up for re-election in 2018, which could cause him to make influential political news headlinesthis year.
Rogers’ net worth is based on approximately $900,000 in assets and roughly $1.5 million in liabilities. A breakdown of his current financial situation isn’t available, but his 2015 financial disclosure report obtained by OpenSecrets.org revealed his assets are largely from checking, savings and retirement accounts. Two mortgages were listed as his sole liabilities.
(United States Congress / Wikimedia Commons)
7. Dennis A. Ross
Net worth: -$600,000
Representative Dennis A. Ross served Florida’s 12th district from 2011 to 2013 and has served the state’s 15th district since 2013. The Republican is up for re-election in 2018, so expect to hear his name in election news coverage.
Despite representing a state without a lot of debt compared to others, Ross’ net worth is based on an estimated $1.5 million in assets and liabilities totaling approximately $2.1 million. His assets include a rental property and a capital gains loan worth $500,000 to $1 million, according to his 2016 financial disclosure report posted on OpenSecrets.org. Liabilities listed include two mortgages and four additional loans for a motor home, travel trailer, truck and tractor.
(US House of Representatives / Wikimedia Commons)
6. Christopher Murphy
Net worth: -$700,000
Democrat Christopher Murphy has served as a Connecticut senator since 2013. Before that, he represented the state’s 5th district in the House from 2007 to 2013. He’s up for re-election in 2018.
Murphy’s net worth is based on assets estimated at $100,000 and liabilities of $800,000. A breakdown of his current financial situation isn’t available, but his 2014 financial disclosure report obtained by OpenSecrets.org revealed his assets were held in bank accounts, mutual funds and retirement accounts. His liabilities consisted of a mortgage and two student loans, valued at $15,001 to $50,000 each.
Representative Emanuel Cleaver has been serving Missouri’s 5th district since 2005. The Democrat is up for re-election in 2018.
Cleaver’s net worth is based on an estimated $500,000 in assets and $1.3 million in liabilities. His assets include a mix of bonds, mutual funds, insurance policies and annuities, according to his 2016 financial disclosure report posted on OpenSecrets.org. Liabilities listed consist of a mortgage, student loan, installment loan and a personal liability with a minimum value of $1 million.
Republican Todd Young has been an Indiana senator since 2017. He previously served the state’s 9th district in the House from 2011 to 2017. Young will be up for re-election in 2022.
His net worth includes an estimated $100,000 in assets and $900,000 in liabilities. His assets consist of college savings plans — he has four children — a retirement fund and bank accounts, according to his 2015 financial disclosure report posted on OpenSecrets.org. Liabilities include a mortgage and debt on two credit cards totaling $15,001 to $50,000 each.
(Holly Thrasher / WTIU / Flickr.com)
3. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Net worth: -$1.2 million
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been serving Florida’s 23rd district since 2013. The Democrat previously represented the state’s 20th district from 2005 to 2013. She’s up for re-election in 2018.
Her net worth is based on estimated assets of $100,000 and approximately $1.3 million in liabilities. A breakdown of her current financial situation is not available, but her 2015 financial disclosure report — posted on OpenSecrets.org — revealed the bulk of her assets consist of stocks and savings plans for her three children. Liabilities include multiple mortgages, lines of credit, credit card accounts and a home improvement loan.
(Danuta Otfinowski / Fortune The Most Powerful Women 2013 / Flickr.com)
2. Alcee Hastings
Net worth: -$2.4 million
Democrat Alcee Hastings has represented Florida’s 20th district in the House since 2013. He previously served the state’s 23rd district from 1993 to 2013. Hastings is up for re-election in 2018.
His net worth was calculated based on zero assets and $2.4 million in liabilities. One of the poorest members of Congress, his liabilities include a mortgage estimated at $100,001 to $250,000 and the rest in legal fees, according to his 2015 financial disclosure report, which was obtained by OpenSecrets.org.
Previously a U.S. District Judge in Florida, Hastings was convicted of bribery and impeached in 1989. This caused him to rack up more than $2.5 million in attorneys’ fees, according to a 1993 article in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
(Cliff / Flickr.com)
1. David Valadao
Net worth: -$17.5 million
Republican David Valadao was elected to serve California’s 21st Congressional District in 2012. He’s been at work representing the district since 2013, and he’s up for re-election in 2018.
Of all the members of Congress, Valadao is the poorest. His net worth is based on assets of $2 million and $19.5 million in liabilities.
Also a dairy farmer, his assets include a $2 million stake in the family farm, according to his 2016 financial disclosure report, which was posted on OpenSecrets.org. His extensive liabilities were caused by financing for feed, equipment and land for the business.
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 on Trump to "impeach the mother---er," 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?"
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