NEWLY MINTED House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is off to a rocky start. On the same day she was formally elected to lead the new Democratic majority, party colleagues refused to endorse her bizarre choice of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who was investigated but not charged in the Abscam scandal more than two decades ago, as her second-in-command.
That embarrassing experience should induce Pelosi (D-San Francisco) — who appeared chastened before reporters Thursday — to reconsider another ill-advised promotion: Her apparent intention to bestow the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee not on the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), but on Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.).
Hastings, like Murtha, seems an unlikely choice for a leadership role in what Pelosi has been advertising as “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history.” Hastings was impeached as a federal judge and removed from office in the late 1980s (although he was acquitted of bribery in a criminal trial in 1983).
A litany of explanations have been adduced to explain why Pelosi would bypass Harman, 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. None of them is persuasive. Harman has earned this chairmanship.
The argument most often cited for bypassing Harman is that under House rules, her rotating membership on the Intelligence Committee is about to expire. But Harman’s supporters note that since 2003, term limits on the committee (which in any case can be waived) don’t apply to the chairman and ranking member. They also point out that 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.
Then there is the claim that awarding the chairmanship to Harman rather than Hastings would offend the sacred principle of seniority, as well as the sensibilities of the Congressional Black Caucus (Hastings is African American).
Seniority has never been the only criterion for the awarding of committee chairmanships in either party. As for black representation in the leadership, two other African Americans, Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) are slated to head the Ways and Means and Judiciary committees, respectively.
The most substantial — and alarming — speculation regarding the Harman-Pelosi rift is that the speaker may consider Harman too moderate. If one of the reasons Pelosi backed Murtha was because he took it to Republicans on the war in Iraq, Harman — who initially supported the war — may be insufficiently partisan in Pelosi’s eyes.
Pelosi, who has vowed to lead the House from the center, should think twice before indulging in a witch hunt of colleagues who can work well with Republicans.
And it isn’t as if Harman is an administration lackey. She has called for the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program to be subject to the safeguards contained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and she voted against a bill to legalize the program without such safeguards. She also opposed legislation to create military commissions to try suspected foreign terrorists that did not afford detainees access to the writ of habeas corpus.
Especially at this juncture, the Intelligence Committee deserves a chairman who is respected by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the White House, and who is free of distracting questions about past personal conduct. Harman fits that description far more than Hastings.