Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elijah Cummings prepare to battle Trump with re-energized House Oversight Committee

Cummings knows that if the freshmen Democrats do their homework, they could become a real force of nature.
Image: Freshmen House Democrats deliver petition urging McConnell to end shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are eager to hit the ground running. And their peers know it.Yuri Gripas / Reuters
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By Kurt Bardella, NBC News THINK contributor

With the announcement that Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Katie Hill, Jimmy Gomez, Harley Rouda and Ro Khanna were joining the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Chairman Elijah Cummings, deputized the next generation of congressional watchdogs.

This is not accident. The Democratic leadership has deliberately injected the high-profile investigative panel with a heavy dose of new blood. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib, Rouda and Hill were all elected in 2018’s blue wave. Gomez came to Congress in 2017 via a special election and Khanna was first elected in 2016.

The Democratic leadership has deliberately injected the high-profile investigative panel with a heavy dose of new blood.

On Tuesday, the committee held its first hearing on drug companies and prescription drug prices. In the coming weeks, much more confrontational showdowns are scheduled, including a March 14th hearing with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross examining his controversial efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. These early hearings will be an important litmus test as the more veteran members learn to co-exist with the new “group of progressive flamethrowers.” I suspect that’s also why Cummings also added the experienced and battle-tested Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-FL to the panel, to provide some balance to the freshman members.

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From the moment this new generation of members came to town, veteran policymakers have been struggling with how to adapt to a new reality in which establishment norms are disregarded and social media consumption is believed to be a prominent bellwether of success. This friction was very apparent last month as new progressives fought against the seniority system to try and land prime committee assignments. While there have been some successes, many freshmen came away disappointed.

Some could argue that the appointments to the House Oversight Committee are a consolation — a byproduct of the establishment trying to find a productive path forward alongside the disruptors and agitators. And there’s no way Democratic leaders would put these new members Cummings’ committee without his support. The veteran politician’s embrace of the progressive freshmen showcases a tremendous amount of savvy. Unlike other colleagues, Cummings has avoided any potential generational schism before it can even manifest itself.

So, what will Ocasio-Cortez and her peers do next? The functional reality of a divided government is that very few substantive pieces of public policy are likely to move ahead. After all, we just ended the longest government shutdown in history — and a permanent budget agreement has yet to be reached.

As Republicans learned in the earlier part of this decade, even during times of partisan gridlock, the oversight agenda is one of the few places where Congress members can still appease base supporters. By conducting investigations, holding hearings, issuing subpoenas and releasing reports, you can demonstrate forward motion — even if you're not passing legislation. This will be an important consideration for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, who has a direct connection to a vocal portion of the liberal base.

At the same time, hearings tend to favor politicians who are able to distill hours-long proceedings into digestible, pointed soundbites. This, too, is an area where the freshmen in Congress already excel. Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is affectionately known online, already has more than five million social media followers between her Twitter and Instagram pages. Pressley and Tlaib each have almost 500,000. Through their tweets and Instagram stories, these new members will be able to shape the perception of these hearings in real time. They may even change how the traditional media covers these hearings.

This is a good thing. Oftentimes, reporters and cable news stations will only cover the beginning of a hearing — the opening statements and the first round of questions. But the order of questioning witnesses at these hearings is determined by seniority, so new members will go last. Previously, a line of questioning from a first-term lawmaker wouldn’t receive a lot of attention. Now, it’s going to be must-see TV.

The functioning reality of congressional hearings is much like a courtroom cross-examination; each member can learn from the previous member’s line of questioning. It’s a very fluid process and Ocasio-Cortez's position on the panel will give Democrats new opportunities to refresh the narrative of the hearing through her exchanges.

Ultimately, though, success for Cummings and his new generation of Democrats will be determined by whether or not they are willing to prepare. When I worked with the Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, there were plenty of members who showed up for hearings ready to do little more than read a previously prepared two-page memo, ask whatever question was handed to them by their staff and then leave. They weren’t really engaged or familiar with the material.

These members contrasted with the representatives who took the time to really dig into the details and spent hours with the investigative staff carefully reviewing documents and underlying materials. These were the representatives who performed strongly at hearings because they were able to effectively question and cross-examine witnesses. Oftentimes, witnesses try to deflect and obfuscate to avoid scrutiny, but, a well-prepared member can disrupt this effort by zeroing in on a very direct line of questioning that could prove politically challenging for the witness.

It’s too soon to know what the legacy of this Congress will be. But if the freshmen Democrats do their homework, they could become a real force of nature. Today, the president of the United States could very well be live-tweeting his thoughts during congressional hearings. It makes a hell of a lot of sense to have some new blood fighting social media fire with fire.