But the two representatives from the U.S. House aren’t letting their differences stand in the way of a growing bipartisan friendship that could serve as a model for others in Congress to follow.
That friendship was on full display this week, as Republican Chaffetz of Utah led his Democratic counterpart from Maryland on a two-day tour of Moab.
They set off on the overnight trip just one month after Cummings, a leading House Democrat from Baltimore, invited Chaffetz to visit his inner-city congressional district.
The two men struck up their friendship on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which tracks how the federal government spends its taxpayers’ dollars; it also keeps an eye on government waste, fraud and abuse.
Cummings is the ranking Democratic member on the committee, and political observers say that Chaffetz has a shot at becoming its next chairman.
Chaffetz noted that their districts are pretty much the polar opposites of each other. Cummings’ district is heavily Democratic, while much of Chaffetz’s 3rd Congressional District beyond Moab is solidly Republican.
Given the voter registration trends in his district, Chaffetz suspects that he could earn some votes by demonizing the opposing party. But he said he just doesn’t see what good would come from that approach.
“I’m sure I could survive politically by just toeing the party line on everything and yelling and screaming about how evil the Democrats are; I’m sure that would help me get re-elected, but it wouldn’t actually move the ball forward,” he said.
Instead, Chaffetz hopes that some of his colleagues will adjust their attitudes.
“It’s easy to lob verbal bombs at each other — I did my fair share of that,” he said. “But I think the real challenge for somebody who is truly going to be a good public servant is: how do you work to not sacrifice your principles, but to come to common ground?”
Along similar lines, Cummings believes it’s possible for people to disagree with each other, as long as they’re not disagreeable.
He framed his vision of an ideal working relationship in a way that most people can readily understand: He noted that he often disagrees with his wife, but when all is said and done, he loves and respects her.
“The question is, do you let your disagreements stop you from being effective and efficient in what you’re trying to do, and do you let your disagreements become distracting and lead you into dysfunction?” he said. “That’s what I try to fight against, and I think it is what this is all about for me.”
In less partisan times, members of Congress often worked across the aisle to get things done. Even in recent memory, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah forged a long and lasting friendship with the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
During the last few congressional sessions, however, relations between the two parties have soured to the point that several fellow Democrats struggled to understand why Cummings would take Chaffetz up on his offer to visit the Beehive State.
“I’ve had a few colleagues say, ‘Well, you know, I’m surprised you’re going to do that: You’re going to go out to Utah,’” Cummings said. “I tell them that I’m hoping that this will maybe open up the door for others to begin to do the same kind of thing, so we can start something that’s positive instead of being headed in a negative direction.”
In the long run, he said, partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill only ends up hurting ordinary Americans.
“Our country cannot continue down this road of dysfunction. We just can’t. There are too many people that are dependent upon us,” he said. “I don’t want to let them down, and I don’t think that Congressman Chaffetz wants to let them down, either.”
Congressmen hear local officials’ concerns
Cummings’ visit to Moab offered him a crash course in public lands issues, ranging from potential Endangered Species Act listings to the controversy surrounding a proposal to create a 1.8-million-acre Greater Canyonlands National Monument.
Elected official after elected official shared their concerns about the federal government’s regulatory footprint across the region.
Notably, Cummings did not hear any viewpoints from Moab’s sizable population of conservationists and environmentalists. But the congressman said it’s important to hear perspectives that differ from his own, and to see how other people live their lives.
“I cannot imagine hearing about these kinds of issues in the future and not having a picture in my mind of some of these things that I’m talking to these folks about,” he said.
It goes without saying that Cummings never thought much about the future of the Gunnison sage grouse, for instance, before he paid his first-ever trip to Moab.
The son of former sharecroppers hails from a stretch of inner-city Baltimore that is perhaps best known as the setting of the TV crime drama “The Wire.”
His district is so small that he can get to any one place inside it within 45 minutes or so, and he seemed genuinely surprised to learn that Lake Powell’s shoreline stretches out for nearly 2,000 miles. He was also impressed to hear from people who can trace their family histories back hundreds of years.
His takeaway from the trip? People from rural Utah and people from urban Maryland might not be so different, after all.
Like the residents of his district, Chaffetz’s constituents are simply trying to make a living and provide for their families, he said.
“You know, it’s easy for somebody to sit back and say, ‘well, one is more important or more significant than the other,’” he said. “But again, we’re all in this boat together, and I just don’t want to come to a point at the end of my career or the end of my life where I’m mourning for what could have been.”
If Cummings felt like the odd man out in Moab, Chaffetz can likely empathize with him.
Before he set foot in Baltimore this summer, Chaffetz had never heard of the term “food deserts,” which describes largely urban areas where fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are hard to come by.
“It seems like something that has always been available to me, but there are parts of inner-city Baltimore where that’s just not the reality,” he said.
His learning curve continued when Cummings took him to the Center For Urban Families. The organization has helped thousands of people become responsible parents, while giving them the skills they need to build their careers.
“It was very impactful,” Chaffetz said. “I’m inspired by ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and these were people that were trying to move in the right direction. They were very sincere, and they’re inspirational to me, because they had challenges unlike anything I’d probably experienced, but they were trying to make life better for themselves and their families.”
Cummings, meanwhile, walked away from his whirlwind trip to Grand County with a new perspective on the issues that Chaffetz deals with almost every day.
Observers who tagged along on the tour said that Cummings appeared to be overwhelmed at times. But he did not complain — not when his itinerary included a Canyonlands by Night and Day cruise up the Colorado River, followed by a quick visit the next morning to The Windows section at Arches National Park.
“I love [Moab]. Never seen anything like it,” he said.
Still, he’s unlikely to mimic some of the fashion choices he observed during his stay here.
When a Chaffetz staffer asked him what would happen if he walked down the streets of his district wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, Cummings gave a deadpan answer:
“They’d say I’d lost my mind.”