For House Dems, Personal Trumps Popular

A good rule for understanding the U.S. House of Representatives, and legislative bodies in general, is that what makes sense

A good rule for understanding the U.S. House of Representatives, and legislative bodies in general, is that what makes sense internally often amounts to public-relations suicide.

Just consider Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker-designate, and her pique-fueled quest to remove Jane Harman from the House Intelligence Committee.

The two Californians have their ideological differences, to be sure: Ms. Pelosi is an unabashed social and economic liberal, while Ms. Harman is more conservative.

For what that’s worth.

Ms. Harman’s real crime is that she has rubbed Ms. Pelosi, her onetime friend, the wrong way. There is, for example, the shrewd way that Ms. Harman has used her committee post—she’s now the ranking Democratic member—to craft a national identity, appearing on more Sunday talk shows last year than any other House Democrat, Ms. Pelosi included. And there is also the fact that for more than a year, Ms. Harman hasn’t exactly discouraged influential nonpartisan voices from loudly speaking out on behalf of her continued service on the committee—a heavy-handed tactic that no self-respecting leader, least of all Ms. Pelosi, would countenance.

To outside-the-Beltway layfolk, this may seem petty, but within the insulated, factionalized and sometimes racially divided House Democratic ranks, Ms. Pelosi has considerable room to maneuver.

In terms of mechanics, it’s simple for her to strip Ms. Harman of her power base. Members of Intelligence, a permanent select committee, are appointed directly by their party leaders, with service limited to eight years—unless the party leader grants a waiver (as was the case with the previous Republican chairman). Ms. Harman’s time is now up.

But the external politics are poisonous. Pitted against Ms. Harman’s bipartisan chorus of supporters, Ms. Pelosi can easily be accused of putting a petty personal grudge over national security. There’s also the matter of the committee’s now-second-ranking Democrat, Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who was impeached for bribery, and whose hopes for the chairmanship were snuffed out by Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday—after two weeks of clumsy silence by the Speaker-designate yielded a tidal wave of negative press.

Clearly, acceding to Ms. Harman’s wishes would spare the House’s new majority party—which campaigned against a “culture of corruption”—any more media-induced opprobrium.

Again, for what that’s worth.

Because within the Democratic Caucus, personal relationships—not P.R. considerations—are what guide decisions. And in that world, Ms. Harman is not a popular woman.

For instance, a good chunk of the caucus believes that she long ago sold them out, excessively cooperating with and acquiescing to the majority G.O.P. on the Intelligence Committee.

In the run-up to the war, “she definitely didn’t raise tough questions,” said New Jersey’s Donald Payne, a progressive Democrat who, like many others, is also dismayed at how Ms. Harman has handled her numerous national television appearances.

“If you’re going to be on, you ought to at least be able to articulate the Democratic message effectively, because you’re supposed to be on there representing the party—not yourself,” Mr. Payne said. “To me, it raises the question: Who are you doing it for?”

Mr. Payne is also part of another House Democratic constituency that wants Ms. Harman out: the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Mr. Hastings is a member. Mr. Payne and his fellow C.B.C. members remember only too well that it was one of their own, Georgia’s Sanford Bishop Jr., whom Ms. Pelosi bumped from the Intelligence Committee in 2000 to make room for Ms. Harman—back when the two women were friends.

And that complicates what remains Ms. Pelosi’s most likely escape hatch: the appointment of a third Democrat, likely Texas’ Silvestre Reyes or the ethically chaste Rush Holt of New Jersey, instead of Ms. Harman or Mr. Hastings.

“I don’t think the C.B.C. would take that very well,” Mr. Payne said. “We would certainly indicate our displeasure.”

Ms. Harman does have her Democratic defenders, and not coincidentally they are disproportionately from the party’s moderate-to-conservative wing, representatives of swing districts for whom ignoring the P.R. angle is tantamount to surrendering their seats. They are also woefully outnumbered—the result of the gerrymandering that has pulled both Congressional parties away from the center and, arguably, made them less responsive to average citizens.

In a broader sense, the divisions over Ms. Harman’s status hint at Ms. Pelosi’s real challenge as Speaker. Much more than the House Republicans, who excelled at enforcing discipline, Democrats represent a patchwork of interests: The conservative Blue Dogs will split with the progressives, who might be aligned with the New Democrats but against the C.B.C. And so on.

“Democrats,” Mr. Payne observed, “are just an unruly group.”

For House Dems, Personal Trumps Popular