Harman v. Hastings

Posted: Nov 21, 2006 11:19 PM

After careful deliberation, the 9/11 commission concluded that continuity in the leadership of the congressional intelligence committees doesn't matter. It thought bipartisanship should be avoided on the committees if at all possible and recommended that personal pique and racial politics trump substantive considerations.

Actually, of course, the commission said none of those things, and on continuity, said the opposite. The sum total of the Democratic consensus on national security, judging by the bare-bones platform the party ran on this fall, is implementing the remaining unimplemented recommendations of the 9/11 commission. But House Majority Leader-elect Nancy Pelosi could flout the spirit and letter of the commission by bypassing senior California Rep. Jane Harman and choosing instead Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings to head the House intelligence committee.

Harman is a moderate on national security, noted for her expertise. She has a reputation for bipartisan comity and has worked to pull Democrats to the center on defense and intelligence issues. Hastings, on the other hand, is a former federal judge who, thanks to his involvement in a bribery scheme, is one of only seven judges in history to be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate. He is a left-wing Democrat with an undistinguished congressional record who will certainly be a hyperpartisan leader of a traditionally bipartisan committee.

For most people, this wouldn't seem a tough choice. For Pelosi, it's not either -- she seems dead set against Harman.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Pelosi and Harman once were friends, but now "the two rarely talk." The relationship might have been soured by their clashing personalities, or parochial California political considerations, or sheer envy. According to the Times' tally, Harman has been on major Sunday talk shows 18 times during the past two years to Pelosi's six appearances.

An original supporter of the Iraq War, Harman initially resisted Democratic calls for an immediate withdrawal, although she has tilted that way more recently. She has criticized the White House for not getting congressional authorization for the terrorist surveillance program, but supports the program itself. All of this might turn off Pelosi, but comports with the reasonable, bipartisan image the Democrats have attempted to project in taking over the House.

If Pelosi bumps Harman, the next in line is Hastings. He is not a security threat in the sense that he will start selling secrets to the Russians, but the symbolism of his running an extremely sensitive congressional committee is, at the very least, gross. Liberal editorial boards, the foreign-policy establishment and the moderate Blue Dog Democrats have all endorsed Harman. Pelosi still might feel compelled to choose Hastings because of his important countervailing endorsement -- from the Congressional Black Caucus.

The CBC would consider it a slight for Hastings not to get the job, but what doesn't the CBC consider a slight? As a compromise, she might pick a Hispanic congressman, thus pleasing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Why didn't the Democrats tell us a crucial plank of their national-security agenda would be ethnic bean counting on the intelligence committee?

The Harman-Hastings flap is part of The Great Slackening. That is what happens to a reform party sooner or later after it takes control of Congress. In this case, it looks like sooner. Pelosi had barely uttered her pledge to conduct the most ethical Congress ever, before endorsing the Abscam-tainted, earmark-greedy John Murtha for majority leader. Now she might choose an impeached federal judge as her personal pick to run the intelligence committee.

It is still early, and all of this might be forgotten by January. But first impressions can be lasting. Ned Lamont slayed incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut in August, and had all but lost the general election race a few days later when he appeared too left wing and unserious to voters. If Pelosi picks Hastings, she will be a step closer to stamping her Democrats with the mark of Lamont.