Tuesday, November 14, 2006

So much for that Nancy Pelosi honeymoon

Intramural party feuds on Capitol Hill are generally ignored by the average citizen, who equates that kind of stuff with inside baseball. For instance, I happen to remember the distant summer of 1997, when conservative GOP rebels, aided and abetted backstage by Tom DeLay, sought without success to oust Newt Gingrich as House speaker. It was, by journalistic standards, a noteworthy story – yet it’s a safe bet that far more Americans that summer had their headphones on, listening to Jewel.

So I wonder whether most people outside the Beltway will be riveted by the fight over who becomes Nancy Pelosi’s House majority leader...although maybe there is galvinization potential after all:

John Murtha, the Pelosi candidate, is pitted against Steny Hoyer, who served (sometimes uncomfortably) as Pelosi’s number two in the minority ranks. It’s not a big ideological showdown, because Murtha actually has a more conservative voting record than Hoyer; indeed, Murtha is pro-gun and anti-abortion (with a zero rating from the abortion rights community). It’s more accurate to say that this is partly about Iraq, because Murtha at least put the Democrats on the map last year by putting his Marine credentials behind the “redeployment” of troops position – and Pelosi is grateful for that. But this is also about personal payback; Murtha, working backstage, helped Pelosi rise through the House Democratic ranks, and she is grateful for that as well.

There is, however, one aspect of this episode that could hurt the incoming Speaker, and prompt some eye-rolling among those Americans who follow these developments closely on cable news: Murtha has a track record that suggests a lack of ethics.

In fact, the Democratic-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, calls Murtha “one of the most unethical members of Congress,” and paints him as a longstanding opponent of ethics reform, a veteran practitioner of the special-interest pork barrel maneuver known as earmarking, and a "pay to play" operator who rewards campaign donors with federal largesse. (Details, here.)

All of which arguably makes Murtha less than the perfect number two for Pelosi - the same Pelosi who is currently vowing an era of clean government: “Democrats pledge to make this the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history.” Certainly, Murtha's Democratic detractors sense a potential image problem.

And speaking of ethics (or lack thereof), perhaps the more interesting story on the Pelosi front concerns the future of the House Intelligence Committee (a key national security panel), and the identity of its next chairman. Most Americans probably won’t pay much attention to this development either, but, if Pelosi does what some Democrats fear – denying the job to the tough-on-terrorists lawmaker who is in line, and instead naming a guy with an ethically shady past – she will play right into the hands of the conservatives who are looking for ways to shake off their post-election blues.

Jane Harman, a national security veteran with somewhat hawkish credentials, is the congresswoman in line for the chair. The problem is, she and Pelosi reportedly don’t get along, in part because Pelosi doesn’t think that Harman was sufficiently vigilant about Bush while serving as the ranking committee Democrat. Pelosi has already indicated that she will stiff Harman and pick somebody else. And the next person in linem in terms of Intelligence panel seniority, is a Florida congressman named Alcee Hastings.

This would be the same Alcee Hastings who, while serving as a federal judge back in 1988, was impeached by the House for conspiring to take a $150,000 bribe, for lying about the case under oath, and for manufacturing trial evidence. Oh, and did I mention that he was subsequently convicted by the Senate and tossed off the federal bench?

Thus, the wet dream for the conservative media machine. The shorthand would look something like this: San Francisco liberal Pelosi dumps a fighter in the war on terror, thereby demonstrating national security weakness, and instead she picks a corrupt hack who undercuts the promise of an ethical Democratic Congress.

The bottom line is that, for conservatives, Hastings-for Harman is a potential two-fer.

It’s always possible that Pelosi could find a way to skip past Hastings and name a different chair, but here’s the problem with that: Hastings is African-American, and the Congressional Black Caucus is adamant that he be named. And Pelosi wants to make amends to the CBC, because this past summer the CBC didn’t like it when she moved to strip black congressman William Jefferson of his seat on a key committee. (A certain little detail about Jefferson – the fact that the FBI had found a freezer filled with cash in Jefferson’s house – didn’t seem to impress the black caucus as being important.)

In other words, if Pelosi names Hastings in part to please the CBC, she will also open herself up to the charge that the old party litmus tests are alive and well – or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus contends, a Hastings ascent would mark “a return to paint-by-numbers Democratic Party interest-group politics as usual.”

So watch how Pelosi handles these various ethics challenges. The last thing that the triumphant Democrats need is to have Jewel seemingly singing about them: Who will save your soul / if you won’t save your own…