Nancy Pelosi’s Katrina Problem

The outcry from Congressional Democrats was justifiably loud when conservative members resorted to procedural chicanery to kill their latest effort to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives.

After all, the district’s 580,000 residents are subjected to the same federal income tax that everyone else is: Didn’t we decide a couple of centuries ago that taxation without representation is tyranny?

And yet the moralizing of the majority Democrats doesn’t feel as sincere when you consider Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s seemingly peremptory attitude toward the voters of Louisiana’s Second Congressional District, who—like their counterparts in the nation’s 434 other districts—went to the polls last fall and chose their representative to “the People’s House.”

It has been three months since the 110th Congress was sworn in, but Ms. Pelosi still refuses to keep her word and seat that district’s duly elected representative on the Homeland Security Committee—despite the obvious value of such a committee assignment to the Second District, which was decimated by Hurricane Katrina.

There are reasons for the Speaker’s reluctance—mainly political, but also very personal.

For starters, there’s the identity of the Second District’s Congressman: William Jefferson. All of Washington has been waiting for his indictment since August 2005, when F.B.I. agents raided his home and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer.

Now, Republicans are drooling over the prospect of Ms. Pelosi taking Mr. Jefferson’s committee nomination to the House floor—the perfect opportunity for the G.O.P.’s most sanctimonious attack dogs to force a fight and remind Americans of the Speaker’s promise to deliver “the most ethical Congress in history.”

There’s also the grudge factor. Long before that infamous cash began to thaw out, Mr. Jefferson had earned a prominent spot on Ms. Pelosi’s enemies list by seeking to undermine her standing among House Democrats after she refused to appoint him to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2002. Cross her even once, and Ms. Pelosi will still be twisting her knife in you years later.

So Ms. Pelosi, like a football coach trying to protect a lead by running out the clock, is delaying, hoping that much-anticipated indictment at last materializes and gives her cover for denying Mr. Jefferson his seat. It’s not the worst strategy, considering the damning evidence that has already emerged.

Besides the frozen cash, there’s also the matter of Brett Pfeffer and Vernon Jackson, two men associated with the business dealings that landed Mr. Jefferson in the feds’ crosshairs, who have both pled guilty to facilitating the bribing of the Congressman and who are now cooperating with prosecutors. And then there’s the F.B.I., which revealed almost a year ago that it has a videotape of Mr. Jefferson accepting a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash—four days before the August 2005 raid on his home. Surely, the indictment is coming, and soon.

Or is it?

After all, that has been the word for nearly two years now, but nothing has happened. One reason may be that the Justice Department’s right to documents seized in the raid on Mr. Jefferson’s House office last May is now being disputed in court. (Mr. Jefferson—with bipartisan support from the House’s leaders—has asserted that the raid was an unconstitutional incursion by agents of the executive branch on the autonomy of the legislative branch.)

And for all the assumptions of his guilt, Mr. Jefferson remains unindicted and uncharged with any crime—a legal status no different than any other member of Congress. In pubic comments, the soft-spoken 60-year-old has asserted his innocence, suggesting (however implausibly) that some sort of exculpating explanation will eventually emerge and restore his name.

The current situation is of Ms. Pelosi’s making.

Instead of waiting for the legal process to run its course and produce tangible charges against Mr. Jefferson, Ms. Pelosi jumped the gun last June, pressing her House Democrats into expelling Mr. Jefferson from his seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. It was meant as a simple play for the political high ground on ethics issues, a contrast to the G.O.P.’s hesitance to give up Tom DeLay.

But it also provoked an internal backlash. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went to bat for Mr. Jefferson, their colleague, and accused Ms. Pelosi of applying a subjective standard. They noted, for instance, that Gerry Studds, a white Democrat from Massachusetts, wasn’t forced to surrender his committee seat even when his affair with a 17-year-old Congressional page was revealed in 1983.

Ms. Pelosi won that fight on a 99-58 caucus vote. What she didn’t count on was Mr. Jefferson heading back to New Orleans and pulling off a shocking re-election victory in last December’s runoff. That forced her to promise him—and his C.B.C. allies—the Homeland Security seat.

Now, if federal prosecutors don’t bail her out, the Speaker will have to take a very public beating to keep her word.

Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.

Nancy Pelosi’s Katrina Problem