Nancy Pelosi’s Luckiest Defeat

Sometimes, it takes years until the consequences of a decision to become clear. So it is with two bold moves that Nancy Pelosi made nearly three years ago. In one case, she got her way, and in the other she didn’t – both very fortuitous outcomes, for the House Speaker and for her party, as it now turns out.

The move that succeeded was Pelosi’s decision in November 2006, against an outcry from the media and from influential behind-the-scenes players in Democratic politics, to strip fellow Californian Jane Harman of her status as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Harman, as the world learned last week, was actually recorded by federal agents in 2005 seemingly striking a deal with a “suspected Israeli agent” in which Harman pledged to “waddle into” an espionage case involving two former AIPAC officials in exchange for the Israeli agent’s help in lobbying Pelosi to allow Harman to retain her top spot on the Intelligence Committee.

You can surely imagine the field day that Congressional Republicans would be having if Harman were chairing the ultra-sensitive Intelligence Committee. So, from a strategic standpoint, Pelosi would seem to deserve some credit for making a move that was unpopular at the time – but that has just been proven exceedingly wise. Of course, with the revelation that Pelosi had apparently been briefed about the Harman wiretap in late 2005 or early 2006, her move also now looks like an easy an obvious one.

The truth, though, is that Pelosi’s drive to give Harman the boot had as much – and probably more – to do with pique than with the ticking time bomb of the wiretap. Just consider the timeline.

Harman, who was elected to her second stint in the House (after a failed bid for governor of California in 1998) in 2000, was appointed by Pelosi, who was then the minority leader, to the position of “ranking member” – the top member of the minority party – on the Intelligence Committee in January 2003. At the time, Harman and Pelosi were allies, and Pelosi made the move at a considerable political cost: to make room for Harman, she actually had to pass over the more senior Sanford Bishop, which angered Bishop’s colleagues in the influential Congressional Black Caucus.

Very quickly, Harman used her Intelligence post to carve out a leading role for herself in Washington. With Democrats hopelessly (it seemed) stuck in the minority in the House and with a Republican in the White House, Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats were largely ignored by the media and the public.

But Harman wasn’t. Even though she didn’t chair the Intelligence Committee, she had unusual clout. The panel is organized differently than every other House committee. Both parties have the same number of members and the “ranking member” is treated almost like a second chairman. Harman was a regular White House visitor and was privy to the same classified briefings as committee’s Republican chairman, Porter Goss at first and later Pete Hoekstra.

As a result, Harman was in heavy demand from national television producers. By 2004 and 2005, she was more visible than Pelosi. And she was using that platform to argue for a more hawkish foreign policy than Pelosi herself favored. Tension developed.

It was against this backdrop that Pelosi, sometime in early to mid-2005, decided that she would force Harman off the committee at the start of the next Congress, in January 2007. As the party’s leader, she had the right to do this, but the issue was muddy: Republicans had in 2003 waived a rule that limited the chairman and ranking member of Intelligence to two terms (Harman’s second term as ranking member was to expire in January ’07).

Pelosi’s decision was leaked to the media and Harman and her allies fought back in a pressure campaign aimed at making Pelosi rethink her position. The pressure campaign merely served to infuriate Pelosi, prompting her to dig in her heels further. All of this happened before Pelosi ever learned of any wiretap involving Harman.

Viewed this way, the wiretap was probably more of a fortuitous coincidence to Pelosi than a driving force behind her decision. Had Harman been a friend and ally instead of a rival, it’s entirely possible that Pelosi would have stuck by her and given her the waiver to continue on Intelligence.

Evidence for this view can be found in Pelosi’s other bold move from late 2006 – the one in which she didn’t get her way.

In that case, she ignored a ticking ethical time bomb every bit as explosive as the Harman wiretap and pushed – hard – for her friend and ally John Murtha to become the new House Majority Leader. By November ’06, Murtha had become an unlikely folk hero to the Democratic base because of his surprise 2005 decision to reverse his support for the Iraq war.

But long before that, Murtha had also been an unindicted co-conspirator in the infamous Abscam scandal, in which five congressmen and one senator went to jail for accepting cash bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks. Murtha came awfully close to joining them: When the “sheiks” had sat down with him, he’d vouched for the willingness of two of his House colleagues to play ball and said: “I’m not interested – at this point. You know, we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t, you know.”

None of this gave Pelosi pause in ’06, though, when she used her muscle as the incoming speaker to try to secure a victory for Murtha over Steny Hoyer, who, as the Minority Whip before the ’06 elections, had been assumed to be in line for the Majority Leader’s job.

As usual, Pelosi’s motive was personal: Hoyer was a sworn enemy, a man against who she’d waged a protracted, on again-off again leadership fight for five years. And instrumental in her ultimate victory over Hoyer had been Murtha. On that basis, Pelosi sought to push Hoyer, who had publicly and privately sworn off ever challenging Pelosi again, out of the leadership and to replace him with Murtha. Murtha’s ethical baggage – and Pelosi’s full knowledge of Murtha’s heavy use of earmarks as the chairman of a key Appropriations subcommittee – didn’t dissuade her at all.

In the end, she was thwarted, and just over a week after the ’06 elections, House Democrats voted 149-86 to defy their leader and to stick with Hoyer. And the wisdom of their decision is now clear: The feds recently raided a powerful lobbying firm with intimate and extensive ties to Murtha, and his office and rank-and-file House Democrats, sniffing danger, are now scrambling to distance themselves from Murtha. The New York Times reported on Sunday that even the Obama White House is giving Murtha the cold shoulder, a marked departure from past administrations of both parties, which earnestly courted him.

That Murtha is in this position is really no surprise at all. It can’t be said that the warning signs weren’t there. And yet this is the same man Pelosi wanted to install as the second-ranking Democrat in the House. Can you imagine the public relations nightmare Congress Democrats would now be facing if she’d gotten her way?

Nancy Pelosi’s Luckiest Defeat