Having unsuccessfully supported Representative Jack Murtha for the No. 2 slot in the House of Representatives, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi moves on to her next hard decision: whether to name Representative Alcee Hastings as chairman of the House intelligence committee.

This is a tough call for Pelosi. The current senior Democrat on the committee is Representative Jane Harman from California, and Pelosi wants her out. There has long been bad blood between Harman and Pelosi, who preceded Harman as the top Democrat on the panel. Pelosi, according to several Capitol Hill sources, has been upset with Harman’s performance on the committee and has faulted Harman for not sufficiently confronting the Republicans and the White House. Next in line for the Democrats on the committee is Hastings. But he, too, poses a problem. In the late 1980s, Hastings, then a federal judge, was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House on bribery and perjury charges and removed from office by the Democratic-led Senate. He was later elected to the House and subsequently joined the intelligence committee.

Can Pelosi pick a fellow impeached and convicted on corruption charges to run a committee handling the most sensitive secrets of the government? But can she bypass Hastings, an African-American, and alienate the Congressional Black Caucus? Should she choose the third-ranking Democrat, Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas? That would upset the CBC but win plaudits from the Hispanic Caucus. To duck the whole knotty issue, should she simply let Harman have the job for a short spell?

In a closer to perfect world than this one, the answer would be obvious: do none of above and name Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat on the committee, to lead the panel. (More on Holt in a moment.) But since the House is far from perfect, this is not likely to happen.

Hastings has come a long way since being impeached by the House Democrats. He is currently the senior Democrat on the intelligence panel’s subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security. He also serves ably as a Democratic whip. But now that he is close to taking over the intelligence committee, his past has become an item of renewed controversy. Prior to the congressional elections, conservatives and Republicans started raising the obvious question about Hastings: Should a person kicked off the federal bench for conspiring to receive a $150,000 bribe be placed in charge of the intelligence committee? The attack on Hastings was part of the GOP’s campaign to frighten voters into not electing Democrats. (Charlie Rangel will be in charge of the tax-writing committee!) But it was a justifiable query; the Republicans had a point. History is not on the side of Hastings or his present-day supporters.

On August 3, 1988, the House voted to impeach Hastings by a vote of 413 to 4. The floor manager of the impeachment resolution was Representative John Conyers, a CBC stalwart to this day, who declared that there was “damning evidence” that Hastings had plotted with another lawyer to obtain a payoff in exchange for reducing the sentences of an undercover FBI agent posing as a convicted racketeer. Five years earlier, Hastings, appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, had been acquitted of these charges by a Miami jury. But Conyers maintained that Hastings had lied at his trial. (A post-trial investigation conducted for the U.S. Court of Appeals had concluded that Hastings had sought the bribe and then faked evidence and testified falsely.)

During the impeachment, Conyers declared, “I looked for any scintilla of racism. I could not find any.” He noted that “race should never insulate a person from the consequences of unlawful conduct.” No House members defended Hastings during the impeachment proceedings. When the Senate tried Hastings in October 1989, Conyers, who was part of the House prosecution team, told the senators, “We argue that he must be removed from office so that he does not teach others that justice may be sold.” The Senate voted 69 to 26 to oust Hastings from office. He became the sixth judge in U.S. history to be removed from the bench by the Senate. In an act of revenge, retribution, or redemption, Hastings three years later ran for a House seat and won.

Hastings has been scandal-free since he entered Congress. House Democratic staffers praise his leadership of the terrorism and homeland security subcommittee. “He’s been a hardworking member of the committee,” one Democratic aide notes. “For years, no one has raised any issues about him being on the committee.” Still, how can Pelosi name to a sensitive position a man once denounced by his fellow Democrats as corrupt? Were he to become chairman, all his actions and statements would be tainted by his past. As the newly empowered Democrats challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the so-called war on terrorism, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees will assume lead roles in the various debates. (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is slated to become head of the Senate intelligence committee.) Hastings’ past will hobble him as a spokesman for the Democrats on national security.

Under House rules, seniority–which usually dictates which legislator becomes chair of a committee–does not apply to the intelligence committee. Pelosi is not obligated to hand the gavel to Hastings should she bounce Harman from the top Democratic spot on the committee. But Pelosi, according to several senior House Democratic staffers, has already promised Hastings the position. And the Congressional Black Caucus has indicated it would be quite displeased if Pelosi shoved him aside. The CBC was angry at Pelosi last June for forcing Representative William Jefferson, who’s under investigation for accepting bribes, to quit the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Pelosi has not named Hastings yet. Some Hill Democrats have floated the option of giving the job to Reyes. Such talk is partly motivated by racial considerations: trade a Hispanic for a black, and it’s a wash. Meanwhile, Harman, according to a senior Democratic consultant, has made an offer to Pelosi: let me remain the top Democrat on the panel, and I’ll only chair the committee for two years. Granting Harman this wish would relieve Pelosi–at least, temporarily–of making a decision about Hastings. But House Democratic staffers say that Pelosi’s antipathy for Harman is so pronounced that no one expects her to take this easy way out. “Other members, too, are not enamored of Harman,” says an aide to a Democrat on the intelligence committee. “She has not been nearly aggressive enough in pushing back on the Republicans–though she has improved a bit on this in recent months.”

Which brings us to Rush Holt. He is a former Princeton University physicist and past intelligence analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He specialized in nuclear matters. He knows much about the intelligence bureaucracy and about weapons proliferation and loose nukes, critical national security priorities. First elected in 1998, Holt has not been shy about confronting the administration and the intelligence agencies. He voted against granting George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He has challenged the administration’s policies on the detention and questioning of suspected terrorists, arguing the White House has not been mindful enough of civil liberties. He also was one of the few Democrats to charge on to the House floor to oppose the Republicans when they sought to intervene in the Terri Schiavo affair. The Courier News of Bridgewater, New Jersey, endorsed Holt’s reelection this year and noted, “Holt offers the kind of intelligence, reasonable and decisive voice that has been all too lacking inside the Beltway during the partisan wars of recent years. But Holt’s value in Congress goes beyond that; he has developed a reputation as a thinking man’s congressman, a scientist by trade who provides more thoughtful analysis on issues than most lawmakers.” Holt calls for beginning a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He has warned the administration not to hype the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapon program, noting the “intelligence on Iran is poor, contradictory, or both.”

Tapping Holt, the seventh-ranking of the committee’s nine Democrats, would be an unconventional move. The CBC would be agitated–even though its members are already claiming three major chairmanships: Conyers at the judiciary committee, Rangel at the tax-writing committee, and Representative Bennie Thompson at the homeland security committee. The Hispanic caucus could be peeved, too. Other House Democrats might be uneasy about such a sharp slap at the seniority principle (though younger members would be heartened). But this would be a chance for Pelosi to send a signal: the Democrats do regard national security seriously and are willing to put aside political concerns to do the right thing. She would be saying, merit matters most when it comes to protecting the United States. Yet if she sticks with Hastings, she is going to have to defend the quasi-indefensible. It will appear–rightly or wrongly–that she cannot shake free of racial politics and institutional imperatives. She ought to instead adopt a radical stance and give this most important job to the most qualified person.

UPDATE: On November 28, 2006, Pelosi released a statement:

Congressman Alcee Hastings and I have had extensive consultations, and today I advised him that I would select someone else as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Alcee Hastings has always placed national security as his highest priority. He has served our country well, and I have full confidence that he will continue to do so.

It was slightly curious that she announced her decision not to choose Hastings without saying who would get the position. Holt is not lobbying for the post, according to Democratic Hill sources. But he certainly would like to get it. The betting, though, has to be on Representative Silvestre Reyes. With such a pick, Pelosi could please the Hispanic caucus as she peeves the Congressional Black Caucus. If merit ruled–yeah, right–Holt would get the nod. But that’s not how business is done in Congress.


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