Despite continuing reports that Speaker of the House-designate Nancy Pelosi intends to name Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings as chairman of the important House Intelligence Committee, I do not think she will do so.
Mr. Hastings, before winning his congressional seat, was a federal judge accused of bribery. He was acquitted of these charges in a trial, but the House of Representatives, based on these accusations, then impeached him, and the Senate removed him from office by convicting him. Both the House and Senate at that time were controlled by the Democrats.
Mr. Hastings subsequently won a Florida congressional seat, and has been acquiring seniority on the intelligence committee since then. He is not the ranking Democratic member, however. Rep. Jane Harmon of California is. Mrs. Harmon, however, does not get along with Mrs. Pelosi, and it is no secret in the Capitol that the speaker-designate does not plan to make her the committee chairman.
In a move that is still reverberating, Mrs. Pelosi endorsed Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania over Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland for House majority leader. Mr. Hoyer, like Mrs. Harmon, was an old opponent of Mrs. Pelosi from the days when the Democrats were in the minority. But when the Democratic caucus met last week, it voted by a very wide margin to make Mr. Hoyer the majority leader. Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer have had to spend most of the last week and this week making nice and trying to gloss over their former antipathy. No doubt the controversy will soon fade when the Democrats take control of the House in January, and have to get down to business.
But making Mr. Hastings the House Intelligence Committee chairman would be a controversy that is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is a public-relations nightmare for the Democrats, who will have to explain again and again why a man who was impeached and removed from office as a federal judge should become the chairman of so sensitive a committee. (Indeed, serious questions could be raised as to why he is on the committee at all.) It could even raise a minor constitutional crisis if President Bush and his administration balked at working with the chairman, citing the fact that we are currently at war with terrorists all over the world. Most Americans might sympathize with the view that only men and women of the highest integrity should have access to the nation’s most important secret intelligence.
Mrs. Pelosi’s decision is complicated by the fact that Mr. Hastings, who is black, has the support of the liberal Congressional Black Caucus, which apparently wants to make this an issue of political correctness.
The bottom line, however, is that Mrs. Pelosi’s challenge now is not to continually settle old scores, but to get her party off to productive leadership of the House. The presidential election is now the political focus of the media and the political class, and those who clamor for a Democratic president in 2008, especially if that person is to be the first female president, do not need chronic self-caused controversy and pettiness to surround the Democrats’ attempt to restore their credibility to lead the nation.
Of course, any speaker has the right to have persons working for and with her or him who are sympathetic and like-minded as much as possible. Mrs. Pelosi, however, has already been forced to face the reality of working with Mr. Hoyer. In addition to the Intelligence Committee, she must also name the other committee chairs, and if her track record so far continues, she could arrive at her swearing-in in January in a veritable quagmire of intraparty hostility so intense that she could not effectively preside over the House.
Republicans have been observing this spectacle with no small pleasure. They were decisively beaten in the midterm elections and lost many members, not to mention control of the Congress. The prospect that Democrats would botch their victory, and do it so soon, has helped Republicans through some of the trauma of their wounds. They lost many seats in traditional Republican and swing districts, and would like nothing better than to have the current Democratic takeover be the shortest in history.
I suspect that, in spite of initial emotions, the Democratic leadership does or will soon realize how very large its task is, and how vital it is to the longer-term goal of winning back the White House (which they will have held only 12 years in the past 40).
I don’t think the country voted the Democrats in so they could settle a few small scores. The country wants the Democrats to demonstrate they can take charge of our many big problems.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium New Service.