- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Political climatology suggests House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has the wind in her sail toward the speakership. So far this year, Iraq, gas prices and the president’s sagging popularity all provide Democrats electoral fishing waters rich with possibilities. Yet the California Democrat also faces some odd paradoxes at this banquet of political opportunity — challenges that create dissonance with voters and thereby obstacles to retake the House.

Congressional action on this year’s spending bills represents the first Pelosi paradox. Nowhere should differences between the parties emerge in more stark relief than in fiscal priorities. Yet the House appropriations process has displayed a stunning degree of bipartisanship on some of the most important bills Congress addressed all year.

So far, House votes look like a convention of comity. Among the highlights: agriculture passed 378-6; energy and water 404-20; foreign operations 373-34; homeland security 389-9; interior 293-128; military construction 395-0; and legislative branch 361-53. It’s hard to argue that Republicans have misguided priorities for the government when spending measures attract that level of bipartisan support. If Democrats want to draw sharp distinctions with the Republicans on major pieces of legislation, they are missing prime opportunities.

And many fund government at levels about the same or lower than the previous year’s and eliminate dozens of unneeded federal programs.

The second paradox concerns Democrats’ reliance on the “culture of corruption” theme. Most Americans think ethical lapses by lawmakers infect both sides of the aisle equally. Making these charges apply only to Republicans was a dubious proposition from the beginning. Even Democrats agree. “She promised members that we were going to run on this culture of corruption plan,” one Democrat told The Washington Times last week. “Everyone … knows that corruption cuts both ways on both sides of the aisle.” Now one of the most heated and internally divisive issues among Democrats concerns how to treat the ethical lapses of one of their own — Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, who is under investigation by the FBI for bribery.

Last week, the House Democratic Steering Committee called for Mr. Jefferson to step down from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, (a vote by the full Democratic Caucus is expected this week) — a move that media reports said “irked” members of the Congressional Black Caucus, potentially creating deep divisions within the party at a time when they need unity to regain the House. It’s ironic that a theme and tactic that was supposed to help Democrats has ended up causing such damaging internal divisiveness.

This kind of dissention is also odd because it’s always easier to maintain minority unity in a legislative body by just opposing whatever the majority wants. Yet Democrats are grappling with another internal battle, trying to keep a potential leadership fight — which is really a proxy battle over Iraq strategy between Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland — under wraps. So, at a time when unity should be easiest to achieve, Democrats are skirmishing on a number of fronts.

Still another paradox centers on Democratic tactics in calling for lawmakers to have a more Washington-centered schedule. They often complain that the Republican leadership sends lawmakers back home for too many district work periods. Democrats argue members should stay in Washington debating important issues. The problem is most voters don’t see it that way. Democrats don’t seem to understand that most voters prefer their representatives spend more time at home helping with problems in their communities. Moreover, besides the unusual comity in the appropriations process, voters believe there is too much bickering in Washington — and see Democrats contributing to this mess.

Interestingly, a recent Dutko Worldwide poll found that when asked if they would prefer their representatives to be in Washington or their districts, voters chose more time at home by a 20 percent margin. And when queried about what would make them feel better about Congress, voters cite a reduction in fighting and bickering as their top choice. So, Mrs. Pelosi’s strategy to spend more time legislating in Washington and arguing with Republicans seems clearly at odds with the mood of the electorate.

Still, the minority leader and her colleagues have set sail toward their electoral goal, helped by some favorable trade winds. But politics is as fickle as weather and produces equally unintended paradoxes. Democrats will find it difficult to alter their course now that they have pushed off. The question is, have their leaders pointed them in the right direction?

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