Pelosi Panel Picks Ruffle Feathers

Posted January 28, 2003 at 6:56pm

In a move to fill the last of the Democrats’ most coveted committee slots, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday tapped Rep. Jim Turner (Texas) to be the lead Democrat on the new Homeland Security panel and was expected to name Rep. John Larson (Conn.) ranking member on House Administration.

The moves came as the Democratic Steering Committee also worked to dole out the other outstanding committee assignments. The Steering panel, which has been slow to complete its work, is now mostly finished, save for assigning second seats to some freshman Members and filling any remaining openings on committees.

Timing aside, some of Pelosi’s appointments have been criticized by Members. Several critics wondered whether Pelosi was simply stocking the panels with her closest friends, rather than with the most qualified Members seeking the posts.

Some Democratic sources went so far as to question whether Pelosi was really thinking about taking the House back, because most of the plum assignments went to Members in safe seats. They said that Pelosi should have handed top slots to Members in competitive seats, to use as leverage back home in 2004.

And some asked whether Pelosi was looking too heavily to her home state and her closest allies. Among those Democratic Members from California getting sought-after assignments: Rep. Jane Harman as the ranking member of Intelligence; freshman Rep. Linda Sanchez on Judiciary; Rep. Hilda Solis to Energy and Commerce; and Rep. Mike Thompson on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“It seems to me there’s a premium on being from California and being a friend of the leader’s,” said a Democratic lawmaker.

One Democratic aide said that many of the selections have come out of left field, adding that Pelosi has bypassed Members who sought out the posts for those who hadn’t been actively seeking them. And, the staffer said, Pelosi has given all of the exclusive assignments to Members in fairly safe districts: “There’s a pattern here. Is it that she’s taking care of her friends, or paying back debts or taking care of liberal Members? It’s coming at the expense of threatened Members.”

But Pelosi’s office and her allies defended the selections. Pelosi, they argued, has tried to give freshmen more opportunities and has widened the pool for blacks, Hispanics, conservatives and moderate New Democrats.

In particular, they pointed to Pelosi’s naming of Turner, one of the leading conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Also, they noted the appointments of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, to Ways and Means, and Rep. Jim Davis (D-Fla.), a prominent New Democrat, to Energy and Commerce.

Pelosi wasn’t ignoring threatened Members’ requests, her allies said. In fact, they argued that the Members who have been vying for the top committee slots are all in secure districts.

“You aren’t looking at our marginal Members who are requesting these things,” said one leadership aide. “She’s definitely spreading out. Committee assignments are near and dear to Members’ hearts, so of course people are going to be upset when they don’t get their first choice.”

Said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly: “Obviously it’s a difficult process because there are more Members that want to be on committees than there are slots available. So some are disappointed, but on [the] whole we’ve been very fair and we continue to be as fair to everyone and spread the assignments as best we can.”

With the naming of Turner and the likely selection of Larson, Pelosi has secured all of the ranking member jobs on key committees. Both moves came as a surprise, because neither Turner nor Larson was known to be actively vying for the posts.

“She came to me,” Turner said. “I don’t think I thought of it in terms of that committee because it is a select committee. I welcome the confidence she’s expressed in me.”

The other Democratic slots on Homeland Security have yet to be filled, since the ratios have not been assigned. But Pelosi did tell her Caucus this week that by taking a slot on the new panel, Members would have to relinquish another committee post.

That edict is consistent with Pelosi’s hard-line stance limiting Democratic Members to two committee assignments, and pushing more senior Members with two top slots to give up one.

In response, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member on Education and the Workforce, agreed to take a leave from the Resources panel for two years. Harman, now ranking on Intelligence, agreed to relinquish her Energy and Commerce slot, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ranking on Financial Services, took a leave from Judiciary.

If selected as the ranking member on House Administration, Larson would take over for Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who stepped down after winning his leadership job. Next in line was Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.), who was actively lobbying for the position.

Fattah has a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee, which may have prevented him from getting the top spot on House Administration as well.

“I did not get it,” Fattah said Tuesday. “I am disappointed. Obviously given the speculation in the media over the past 48 hours, it was kind of clear that there was some difficulty about me being successful.”

Fattah will no longer serve on the House Administration committee; Democratic members of that panel are appointed by the Minority Leader, rather than going through the regular steering process.

“Absent the opportunity to be ranking member given my service, there is no reason to serve,” Fattah said, adding that Pelosi must have wanted the committee to go in a new direction.

Meanwhile, the Steering Committee this week filled other committee openings, including Agriculture, Armed Services, Budget, Education, Financial Services, International Relations, Judiciary, Resources, Science and Transportation. It already had finished assignments to Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Intelligence.

The latest appointments mean Transportation, Financial Services, Judiciary, Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce are completely filled.

Suzanne Nelson contributed to this report.