Pelosi’s First Move Is Questionable

While the post-election shoving and shuffling on Capitol Hill sounds dull, parochial and petty to the rest of the world, the choices that politicians make among themselves can be telling. Whether the Democrats elect John Murtha or Steny Hoyer this week to serve as majority leader—second in command to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—is unlikely to depend upon their ideological leanings or their positions concerning the war in Iraq. Decided by secret ballot, this election will measure respect, popularity, style and favors owed.

By siding openly with her friend and ally, Mr. Murtha, in a letter to her colleagues, however, Ms. Pelosi has also ensured that the outcome will render an instant judgment on her authority in her new role. She has sent a clear signal that what she values most is loyalty—and that she is willing to risk embarrassment to enforce discipline. For Democrats who have too often failed to act with any semblance of cohesion or coherence, the Pelosi approach is refreshingly tough and free of timidity.

But as a national leader who vowed to clean up Washington’s dirty politics during the 2006 campaign, she may yet come to regret her endorsement of Mr. Murtha. After promising to “drain the swamp,” she immediately adopted one of the swamp’s hungriest alligators as her pet.

Until he won deserved gratitude last year by speaking out against the war, Mr. Murtha was best known as an old-fashioned political dealmaker who specialized in trading votes for pork projects and as a reliable advocate of Pentagon spending, no matter how wasteful. Conservative on social issues but sympathetic to labor, he was the kind of Democrat who often did business with Republicans when that served his narrow interests. More than once, his backroom maneuvering has raised ethical questions.

During the Abscam investigation, he was caught on tape discussing investments and Congressional favors with an F.B.I. informant. The corrupt Congressional pals who introduced him to the phony Abscam sheik went to prison. Although he was never indicted and ended up testifying against those who were prosecuted, his presence in their seedy company was not reassuring.

That incident, which occurred more than two decades ago, never troubled his conservative critics until he spoke out against the war. But more recently, he has participated enthusiastically in the rotten system that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars in defense “earmarks” sought by lobbyists, whose clients then make enormous campaign contributions to the appropriators. According to The New York Times, he assisted the old Republican leadership in defeating Democratic initiatives, in exchange for earmarks for his district and his state.

He has also regularly opposed lobbying and ethical reforms, and even helped to kill Democratic efforts to investigate contracting abuses in Iraq. The public-interest monitors at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, whose previous targets have included former Representatives Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham, have denounced Mr. Murtha as “one of the most unethical members of Congress.”

If he has not quite escaped the capital’s “culture of corruption,” his rival isn’t exactly a paragon of purity either. Mr. Hoyer is younger and slicker than Mr. Murtha, but he is equally receptive to the lobbying industry. Indeed, he has boasted of his role in creating a Democratic version of the K Street Project set up by Republican leaders to institutionalize their relationship with corporate lobbyists. The usual description of Mr. Hoyer as “friendly to business” is a polite understatement. But nobody has accused him of unethical conduct, and he has won the support of such rigorous reformers as Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Jerrold Nadler of New York.

It is unfortunate that the race between Mr. Murtha and Mr. Hoyer quickly became nasty, with accusations exchanged via leak and press release. Open warfare between her aspiring deputies doesn’t represent the orderly, purposeful image that the future Speaker prizes so highly, nor does it advance the objectives she set out for the first days of the incoming Congress. While some competition for leadership was unavoidable, Ms. Pelosi might well have tried to constrain her colleagues from acting out their animosity with such melodrama.

It is also unfortunate that the leadership election is turning into a symbolic vote on the issue of Iraq. There was no need to test the party’s fragile unity on that paramount issue before the new Congress is sworn in.

Even worse is the appearance of business as usual, after an election in which millions of citizens demanded change. As Ms. Pelosi takes up her constitutional responsibilities, she will hear many people say that she is no different from her tainted predecessors, that all politicians are crooked, and that Democrats are just as compromised as Republicans. Her most important responsibility is to prove those clichés untrue, but her attempts to enforce her personal agenda have only made that crucial task more difficult.

If she fails to deliver reform, her historic reign will be disappointing—and possibly quite brief.