WASHINGTON -- A story told in cloakrooms of the House of Representatives shows how ironic life on Capitol Hill can be. Jim McCrery, the low-key, hard-working ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, has spent all year trying to establish good relations with the tax-writing committee's first Democratic chairman in 12 years, Charles Rangel. He succeeded, only to discover that Rangel does not really run Ways and Means. Nancy Pelosi does.
Rangel, a crafty New York politician, so far looks like the weakest Ways and Means chairman during my 50 years in Washington. That's only because Pelosi so far is the most powerful speaker of the House during that same period, a reality obscured by her historic role as the first woman to hold that office. She does not confer with or defer to standing committee chairmen, whose predecessors made previous speakers dance to their tune.
On both sides of the aisle, the beautiful 67-year-old grandmother from San Francisco is referred to as the "Committee of One" who rules the House. Many speakers over the years relied on their majority leader, as Republican Dennis Hastert let Tom DeLay handle day-to-day operations. But not Pelosi, who actually opposed Steny Hoyer's election as majority leader.
Ruling absolutely does not mean even Democrats think she rules well. Her misguided effort to pass a resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian holocaust constitutes a rare public blunder, but beyond that she has not crafted a coherent Democratic message. This month's Harris Poll puts her nationwide job disapproval ("fair" or "poor") at 57 percent. But she is an icon at the Democratic grass roots, and none of the committee chairmen who have been downgraded by her -- certainly not Charlie Rangel -- utters a word of public criticism.
Rangel's massive proposed tax reform released last week gets less respect than what is normally accorded a Ways and Means chairman's plan, because Pelosi is not on board. Rangel's desire to compromise with the Bush administration on international trade agreements has been frustrated because the speaker defers to Rangel's trade subcommittee chairman: Sander Levin, who follows organized labor's protectionist line.
Much the same treatment has been experienced by John Dingell, the senior member of Congress, as Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. In bygone days, Dingell deferred to neither Democratic presidents nor speakers. But Pelosi is determined to pass an energy bill this year even though it means crossing Dingell, who as a Detroiter opposes Californian Pelosi on mileage and emission standards. A sage old professional, Dingell knows there is no political profit in publicly clashing with Madame Speaker.
No committee chairman wants to take the risk of going public against Pelosi, including one who sought her advice -- and, hopefully, support -- on a controversial matter of House business. This anonymous chairman was rebuffed by the speaker, who declined to talk to him, either in person or over the telephone.
Being the "Committee of One" does not mean Pelosi is without lieutenants. She is close to two fellow Californians, both fiercely partisan, who head committees: George Miller (Education and Labor) and Henry Waxman (Oversight and Government Reform). Miller is regarded as her consigliere, always at her side. She is also considered close to moderate chairmen Ike Skelton (Armed Services) and John Spratt (Budget), plus liberal chairman Barney Frank (Financial Services).
However, that does not mean she always takes their advice, as witness her big blunder as speaker. Skelton, a seasoned student of international relations, told her the Armenian resolution would antagonize Turkey and thus constituted a foreign policy debacle in the making. Rahm Emanuel, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, also opposed it (as he had when serving as President Bill Clinton's political aide). Pelosi insisted until some 45 House Democrats -- including Skelton -- opposed her.
The Armenian episode suggests a Pelosi decision has to approach the brink of disaster before Democrats speak out. Her popularity in the party beyond Capitol Hill is too great. When I asked one esteemed Democratic operative whether Pelosi's authority is without restraint, he called that a sexist question because I never would ask that about Sam Rayburn or Tip O'Neill. Indeed, I would not. They were not that powerful.