Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pelosi’s choice: Why Jane Harman won’t be the next chair of the House Intelligence Committee

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The high-profile Hoyer-Murtha contest for House majority leader, now in its what-does-it-all-mean aftermath, has obscured another of Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi’s efforts to put her own people in place. That effort concerns the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, a key position as Democrats look to position themselves as the majority party on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, provide a more formidable opposition to Bush with respect to both wars, and, as appears likely, conduct wide-ranging investigations into the incompetent and inadequate — and, in the case of Iraq, also deceptive and manipulative — waging of those wars by the Bush Administration.

The obvious candidate for the position is California Rep. Jane Harman, currently the committee’s ranking Democrat and one of the party’s leading figures on intelligence matters. But reports emerged shortly after the elections last week that Pelosi could select to bypass Harman and appoint someone else. For example, this report in the Post: “Pelosi has nursed a well-publicized grudge against her fellow California Democrat because she believes Harman has not been a tough enough critic of President Bush on security matters, while using her ties to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee to lobby for the chairmanship.” Then, just a few days ago, the Post reported that “Pelosi has also all but decided she will not name [Harman] to chair that panel next year, a decision pregnant with personal animus”.

Harman has been backed by the conservative Blue Dog Coalition (of which she is a member), according to The Hill. The Blue Dogs put it this way: “Both our Caucus and Party have counted on Congresswoman Harman to answer forcefully and credibly to partisan critics who have questioned Democrats’ commitment to protecting our nation.” And the L.A. Times agrees, defending Harman’s record and arguing that she is “an expert on intelligence matters who has won the respect of both parties while criticizing some of the Bush administration’s excesses in the war on terror”. She “has earned this chairmanship”.

So what’s going on here? Why won’t Pelosi appoint her to the position?

Harman may be too moderate (or not anti-Bush) enough for some, including Pelosi, but her record is clear. One excuse is that “her rotating membership on [the committee] is about to expire”. But such term limits “don’t apply to the chairman and ranking member” and “can be waived” regardless, and “the independent 9/11 commission called in its recommendations for longer tenures on congressional intelligence panels as a way of fostering continuity and institutional memory”. Harman has the “institutional memory”. She has the respect of her colleagues. She has the experience for the job. But no. For it seems that the forces of personal and identity politics have combined to bring her down.

The L.A. Times refers to “the Harman-Pelosi rift” and suggests that Harman “may be insufficiently partisan in Pelosi’s eyes”. Bob Novak noted yesterday that some of Pelosi’s critics “worry that her decision making may be distorted by personal considerations,” and he refers to Harman as Pelosi’s “rival diva from California,” which may be sexist but also true.

All of which is bad enough. This is no time for personal politics, even if Pelosi is determined to establish her authority in the House (and over her own party). It’s one thing to want your allies (like Murtha) in key positions, quite another to reject the most competent candidate for the committee chairmanship as important as this one. Given how grossly incompetent Bush and the Republicans have been with respect to intelligence, the Democrats’ priority with respect to how they conduct themselves in power should be, well, competence. Pelosi may not like Harman, but personal differences ought to be put aside in favour of the national interest, not to mention Democrats’ self-interest as the new majority party.

Pelosi’s preferred candidate seems to be Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Why Hastings? Unlike Harman, Hastings was never what the editors of The New Republic call “a strong supporter of the Iraq war” — although Harman is now “a tough critic,” and a far more visible and credible one than Hastings. But Pelosi may also be playing “racial politics”: “Pelosi doesn’t want to skip over a black member like Hastings for fear of angering the Congressional Black Caucus,” even though “African Americans [are] sure to chair several major committees”.

If this is no time for personal politics, it certainly is no time for identity politics. The Democratic caucus is diverse enough that historically underrepresented groups will be represented in key positions of power and responsibility. And not because of what they are but because of who they are.

And the problem with Hastings isn’t just that he lacks Harman’s experience and competence but that he’s one of the great embarrassments in American politics. Consider: “In 1981, Hastings was a federal judge in Miami. He was accused of conspiring with a friend to take a $150,000 bribe in exchange for issuing light sentences to a pair of mobsters. A Miami jury acquitted Hastings (while convicting the friend), but three different federal judicial panels later referred him to Congress for impeachment.” The Democratic Congress impeached him by a vote of 413 to 3. And the Senate convicted him by a vote of 69 to 23. And then he won his House seat in 1992, where he has been ever since “without leaving much of a mark on the institution”.

Harman is the right person for the position, but even if she weren’t how is Hastings the right person for it? He isn’t. And yet he may very well be Pelosi’s choice. I realize I’ve been hard on Pelosi lately (even though I welcomed her ascension to the speakership and still support her). But the promotion of Murtha over Hoyer for majority leader and now, much worse, the promotion of anyone but Harman (and perhaps someone like Hastings) for the chairmanship of a battleground committee are, to me, reflections of messed up priorities and signs of questionable leadership. She needs to do better. And she needs to look beyond herself to the good of the country and the good of her party. Both of which would be well-served with Jane Harman leading the way on intelligence.

(See also all the comments at The Carpetbagger Report, where this post first appeared.)

Bookmark and Share


  • What, now you're quoting Bob Novak? Look, if this Hastings character is tapped, that will be a problem. But there's a consensus that the Democrats won because the vaunted "American people" think, rightly, that Bush's foreign policy, especially in Iraq, has been an abject failure. So of course Pelosi is going to pick strongly anti-war Dems, and personal allies, for key leadership positions, rather than people who have been less critical of Bush and the Iraq War than Chuck Hagel or Lindsey Graham. I think this is just another instance of the MSM showing themselves to be a mindless pack of right-center apparatchiks who want to torpedo a "San Francisco liberal" before she can get into power. And if this were a man, would we be hearing about how it's all about personal rivalries and poor leadership? Or would we be calling him "The Hammer" and so forth? I'm not saying Pelosi may not be making mistakes, I'm just saying that so far, all I see is a House Speaker picking reps. who reflect the mandate her party has been given, and a lot of sound and fury from half-wit Beltway pundits.

    By Blogger ., at 7:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home