Skip to content

Jefferson Indictment Aside, Speaker Pelosi Has Been on a Roll

First, a few words on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) indictment. The long delay before the indictment was almost certainly shaped by the ill-advised, rash and blundering raid by the Justice Department and FBI on Jefferson’s office in May 2006. Had that raid been done with any sensitivity to the Constitution and its Speech or Debate Clause, the evidence in the office would have been available to use much earlier. [IMGCAP(1)]

The aftermath of that raid was then-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) finest moment, when he stood up for the House and the Constitution. It was another in a series of low moments for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: He allegedly threatened to resign unless the White House supported the raid — the only case for which he was ready to step down.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) reacted to the indictment by raising the prospect of an expulsion vote. This is wrong-headed, of course — as the U.S. attorney who brought the indictment noted, an indictment is not a conviction. Jefferson should be investigated and dealt with appropriately by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. (And if this isn’t an impetus for a real ethics enforcement mechanism, what is?)

Boehner, who as I recall neither called for the expulsion of then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was indicted nor spoke out against the move by his colleagues to let DeLay keep his leadership post, should think about the precedents here. And he should think about them pretty quickly, since it is very likely that more indictments will be coming as the public corruption investigation rolls on.

On to the good news. The House had an interesting week before it left for Memorial Day. What looked like an embarrassing setback on ethics and lobbying reform turned into an impressive victory for reform — not perfect, by a long shot, but meaningful and serious reform nonetheless. The continuing confrontation over funding for Iraq was quelled by passage and acceptance of a supplemental appropriation that includes benchmarks but no deadlines — with a large bipartisan majority in the House. And U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Ways and Means subcommittee on trade Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) achieved a bipartisan breakthrough on trade representing at least a rough meeting of the minds.

All that made it, in my view, a good week for Congress, a sign of progress in key areas and some reason for hope. And it gives me reason to write a paean to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The lobbying reform was tough. Its journey was tortuous. It is a sad reality that if the reform package had been decided in a secret ballot vote, it would have gone down. Way too many Members do not want to discomfit their lives with embarrassing inconveniences such as disclosure of fundraising connections or to dilute or delay any future gravy train for post-Congress employment in the lobbying world — a world where half of all retiring Members of Congress now go. I suppose I could now praise the Blue Dogs, Congressional Black Caucus members and others who were open about their objections to the bundling disclosure provision or the revolving-door extension — but their candor, refreshing though it may be, is more than canceled out by their ethical insensitivity.

The ethical insensitivity extends to members of both parties. This time it was particularly glaring among Democrats. The public reaction against the “culture of corruption” was a major catalyst for the sweeping Democratic victory in November. Democrats ran against it and capitalized on it. To reject real reform now would have been a monumental embarrassment, one that would not go away, creating a major loss of legitimacy for the majority among opinion leaders and setting it up for even bigger problems when more scandals hit — as they inevitably will.

Pelosi understood this, saw passage of real reform as a solemn pledge — and went all-out to make it happen. She had great lieutenants in Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), but she put her prestige on the line, and she succeeded.

The Republicans improved the bill significantly with their very constructive motion to recommit, and then they went out and crowed about their victory. It was a victory, but one that took place only because the Speaker has let motions to recommit with instructions be meaningful — to allow most of them to have a chance to succeed with the necessary bipartisan support. Thanks in large part to the clever strategy and savvy approach Boehner, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) and other leaders have employed, the House Republicans have won on 13 of them so far — which is, oh, about 13 more than the minority Democrats achieved during the comparable period in the 109th.

This is not because the Republican motions were good and the Democratic ones were not. As I have noted in the past, the motion to recommit with instructions was a pure sham during the GOP reign — every motion was cast as a party vote and whipped by the majority leadership to prevent it from passing. With some notable exceptions, that subterfuge is gone.

The vote on Iraq was not, of course, a great triumph for Democrats or the Speaker’s position on the war. It was a serious retreat from what they wanted. But two things are notable about the vote. First, the Speaker realized Congressional Democrats could not prevail on the supplemental. Prolonging the issue, bringing the bill back for reconsideration over and over, would have made some staunchly anti-war Democrats happy — but a confrontation on a spending issue like this is inevitably won by the president, or at best lost by all parties. So Pelosi cut her losses — and in the process found a way at least to get money for many of her party’s spending priorities and enactment of a top priority, the prime item in the “Six for ’06” campaign — an increase in the minimum wage. Savvy leaders understand when you have to accept that reality is chicken poop and still find a way to make some chicken salad.

Second, and more important, the Speaker saw the only way to get this issue off the table was to build a majority for the bill from the center out. She lost a lot of anti-war Democrats — including herself! — but got more than enough Republicans to succeed; actually twice as many Republicans as Democrats. It was a notable example of trying to govern by using the whole House, not the majority of the majority as Speaker Hastert made his tenet. Pelosi genuinely believes a Speaker should govern as Speaker of the whole House, and that many issues can, and do, cut across party lines.

She is right. Iraq aside, issues ranging from immigration to health policy, education to energy and the environment can provide a lot of common ground. The opportunities for serious governing are there for the taking in these and other issues, but they require the majority party in the House to take the first step, to draw in members of the minority and to offer them opportunities. That can happen at the committee level and on the floor. It is happening, and not just because of Pelosi.

Boehner, a tough partisan infighter like Pelosi, also has a different leadership style than his predecessor and worked very well for years with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on education and other domestic issues. Under his leadership, Republicans who want to play a role in policy have been free to do so while working with majority Members, and in many cases they are finding willing partners. Even as the partisan atmosphere in Congress continues to be rancorous, many committees are finding the dynamic is radically different than it was in the previous Congress. On Ways and Means, the friendship and partnership between Rangel and his GOP counterpart, Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), helped to facilitate the trade understanding.

We have a long way to go before Congress is truly functional. There are still major gaps in procedure and no semblance yet of a consistent regular order. The minority has a larger role, but not yet an appropriately robust role. The biggest test on ethics lies ahead with the potential creation of a meaningful investigative and enforcement mechanism in the House. But there are some signs at least of better times ahead for those who love Congress. And signs that Nancy Pelosi could be an exceptional Speaker.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Recent Stories

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass Supreme Court ethics bill

Bipartisan prior authorization legislation introduced

House Republicans hold Garland in contempt over audio recordings

FDA, DOJ hammered on response to illegal vapes

Sneakerheads in Congress grow their footprint

Capitol Lens | House of Usher