Nancy Pelosi’s fortunate defeat

Contrary to the media spin, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer’s election as House majority leader over Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha actually is a victory for San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who supported Murtha. Democrats didn’t spurn her leadership in choosing Hoyer, they bailed her out of a potentially embarrassing situation.

Murtha is Pelosi’s long-time friend and ally. He had successfully managed her leadership campaign against Hoyer for minority leader four years ago. Such an alliance necessarily involves not only friendship but mutual promises of support.

Honoring loyalties and keeping one’s word is the coin of the realm in Congress. It is not inconceivable that Murtha reached a private agreement with Pelosi shortly before Nov. 7 that if Democrats failed to take the House, he would help fend off a challenge to Pelosi’s continued leadership by her perennial rival, Hoyer. Under such circumstances it would have been unthinkable for Pelosi not to support Murtha against Hoyer for majority Leader.

Pelosi is not merely loyal as a matter of political expedience; she is loyal by nature.

All that said, Murtha’s candidacy was dangerous to Pelosi, dangerous to the credibility of her speakership, dangerous to the reformist impulse that called new young voters to the polls. Regrettably, the Pennsylvania congressmen is, as American Enterprise scholar Norman Ornstein recently said, “to put it charitably, ethically challenged.” Anyone reading a transcript of Murtha’s dealings with undercover FBI agents posing as representatives for an Arab sheik seeking to bribe Murtha in 1980 will readily understand what Ornstein is talking about.

In 1980 numerous members of Congress were convicted in federal court in the FBI’s ABSCAM sting. Murtha was not among them, and to this day he denies any wrongdoing.

“Twenty-five years ago, they offered me money,” he said on ABC’s “This Week,” “and I said I didn’t want the money.”

Unfortunately for Murtha, there’s more to the story than that.

What Murtha really said to the undercover agents, as they waved $50,000 in 100-dollar bills under his nose, was that he didn’t want that money “at this point.” “Now I’m not saying,” he added portentously, referring to later when they had done “some business” together, “that some day — you’ve made an offer. It may be that I’ll change my mind some day … at this point, that’s all I’m interested in.”

What Murtha was “interested in” just then was a million-dollar deposit to a close friend’s small bank. In exchange for that, Murtha told the agents, he would agree to carry a private asylum bill for the “sheik.”

In 1981 federal prosecutors designated Murtha as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case that convicted eight of his colleagues. The House Ethics Committee on a split 6-6 party line vote refused to take any action against Murtha. In protest, the committee’s chief counsel resigned.

Had Murtha ascended to the pinnacle of party power in the House, all these details sooner or later would have come boldly into relief under the penetrating glare of media lights, and Democrats who had labored long and hard to regain the House in part on the issue of corruption would have paid a price.

Now Murtha is defeated. Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, who has perhaps more deftly than we realize extracted herself and her party from an almost untenable position, can breathe a deep sigh of relief and return their attention, unfettered, to the reformist agenda that brought them to power.

Darrell Salomon is a San Francisco trial attorney.

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