Some hail as unprecedented the manner in which California Democrat Nancy Pelosi has chosen to begin her surefire reign as the first woman ever to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. But they have forgotten Ralph Perk.
They have forgotten the 1970s day when Cleveland’s erstwhile mayor sought to enliven an otherwise humdrum dedication of a new construction project by cutting the ribbon not with a boring scissors but with a blowtorch — and set his own hair on fire!
Which, of course, brings us to Pelosi and her first move as soon-to-be speaker — to pick a fight she was sure to lose. She opposed for majority leader the party’s House whip, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., with whom she has a longstanding and basically petty feud and backed Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. Murtha is famous for his bold call for a fast-phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; but that was not what was so mind-numbingly wrong with what Pelosi did. Hoyer overwhelmingly defeated Murtha as Pelosi seemingly failed to influence a single Democratic vote; but that wasn’t the main problem either.
Murtha has also earned himself a reputation as an ethically troubled congressman — and that should have been a problem so big as to cause Pelosi to put away her parliamentary blowtorch and pass on Murtha. Because all of the exit polls in this month’s election showed that there was one overwhelming issue on the minds of the voters who returned the Democrats to power in the House and Senate: ethics — specifically, the Democratic charge of a Republican culture of corruption.
Meet Murtha, past and present. Back in the 1970s, the FBI ran a sting known as the Abscam project to see if members of Congress would jump at the bait of an agent who posed as a bagman offering bribes, all of it caught on videotape. Murtha was the one congressman they tried to trap who was never charged with wrongdoing; but while he famously turned down the money, he did it in a way that was hardly noble. “I’m not interested. I’m sorry — at this point…” Murtha said, adding his own emphasis at the end. In the rest of the transcript, first made public long ago by the late columnist Jack Anderson, Murtha explained his position to the FBI’s purported bagman: “…I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period …. After we’ve done some business, well, then I might change my mind …. Now, I won’t say that some day, you know, I, if you made an offer, it may be I would change my mind some day.”
Well, that might make you want to think twice before backing Murtha as majority leader. But if you believe in redemption and know that was long ago, you may prefer to focus on the present. Most recently, Murtha has earned a reputation on the House Appropriations Committee as being the poster-politician for earmarking federal funding — a practice that ethics reformers, from many Democrats to John McCain, say is responsible for making pork Washington’s richest and juiciest meat in the federal larder.
So, the House Democrats, in their wisdom, did not play follow the leader when it came to picking a majority leader. But another Pelosi-ethics leadership test is coming, in the naming of the chairman of the House Select Committee of Intelligence. And with it, another long-simmering feud seems to be bubbling over the top and onto the fire. Pelosi is neither friend nor fan of fellow Californian Jane Harman, who has been a most able and sensible ranking Democrat on this important committee. Pelosi has sent signals that she wants to bypass Harman. But the next in line is Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. — and he has been a most visibly ethically challenged politician. Hastings was a federal judge who was impeached on charges that he tried to solicit a bribe in a case he was trying. While he was not convicted, a bipartisan panel of the U.S. Senate reviewed the case and voted to remove him as a judge.
If the Pelosi-led House Democrats name Hastings as House Intelligence chairman — especially after Pelosi championed Murtha for majority leader — the 2006 election victors will be torching the voters’ mandate. The Democratic leaders will be sending their own clear message: Ethics, shmethics — all politicians are on the take or on the make, one way or the other.
Then voters may send power-giddy Democrats one last message — but it will be too late to help them even though it worked for Cleveland’s Mayor Perk: Go soak your head.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)