Daily Breeze

November 8, 2005

Harman may lose top intelligence committee job
South Bay Democrat faces challenge for House Intelligence Committee leadership. A change could impact local defense industry.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- While it's not exactly the stuff of cloak-and-dagger novels, Rep. Jane Harman is facing a behind-the-scenes challenge to her leadership position on the House Intelligence Committee.

Some lawmakers want House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to replace Harman, D-El Segundo, with a new top Democrat on the committee at the end of the current congressional session in 2007. The issue involves internal Democratic politics, with Harman's qualifications apparently not at issue.

The move would lower Harman's stature as a national spokeswoman for the Democrats on intelligence and homeland security issues. It could also have implications for the South Bay's aerospace industry, which produces spy satellites and other hardware the committee can influence.

None of the parties involved in the dispute want to say much about it publicly, though some debate spilled into the pages of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, over the summer.

"I love the job," Harman said in an interview. "I work 24/7 on security issues for America and for the district, and I'll do the best I can."

But, she added, "It's a leadership call," noting that the makeup of the Intelligence Committee is determined by Pelosi and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

"Leader Pelosi is focused on the work at hand and will deal with the issues of the (next) Congress once we're there," Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

Some outside analysts are urging that Harman be retained, citing a need for stability on the committee, which oversees intelligence agencies and is privy to sensitive information that is off-limits to most other lawmakers.

Pelosi appointed Harman the "ranking" Democrat on the Intelligence Committee in 2003. Pelosi had held the post herself until ascending to the top Democratic leadership job in the House.

To clear the way for Harman, Pelosi moved another Democrat, Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. of Georgia, to the Appropriations Committee, another plum post. Bishop had claimed more seniority than Harman, the traditional path to committee leadership.

But Democratic leaders had promised to restore Harman's seniority to persuade her to run for Congress again in 2000. Harman, who was first appointed to the Intelligence Committee in 1996, had quit the House in 1998 during an unsuccessful run for California governor.

The move apparently did not sit well with Bishop's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. Now some want Pelosi to make Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee when the 110th Congress convenes in early 2007. Hastings is next in line after Harman.

Hastings' spokesman, Fred Turner, said the seven-term lawmaker is "very much focused on his work on the House Intelligence Committee and on taking back the House for Democrats in 2006. After November of 2006, it will be up to ... Pelosi to decide" the matter.

Hastings defended his qualifications for the post in a July letter to the editor of Roll Call, angrily responding to a column by Norman Ornstein, a political analyst. Ornstein had suggested it would be wiser for Pelosi to keep a moderate like Harman in the leadership seat "to bulk up the party's national security portfolio with Democrats who can reassure voters, especially those in heartland districts."

While acknowledging "I am a liberal," Hastings challenged Ornstein "to offer proof that I am any less concerned than conservative or moderate members of Congress about 'intelligence reforms, homeland security and national security policy. ...' "

The leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a similar letter to Roll Call, saying Ornstein "perpetuates a myth that security belongs to one side of the political spectrum alone."

Some members of the Intelligence Committee, who are limited to eight years on the panel, have argued that Pelosi should observe a term limit for the ranking member, even though the House abolished the limit for the committee's leaders in 2003. Hastings, who has also served on the House International Relations Committee, was appointed to the intelligence panel in 1999.

The jockeying over the post dismays some intelligence and security experts. They argue that continuity on the House and Senate intelligence committees is needed given the complexities of counter-terrorism, the war in Iraq and far-reaching intelligence agency reforms recently enacted by Congress.

"I think there has been far too much turnover on the intelligence committees, especially because of the eight-year rule," said Loch K. Johnson, who was a staffer on the House and Senate Intelligence committees in the 1970s and is a professor at the University of Georgia. "Now lawmakers have a chance to stay on these two committees and become real experts. This expertise is badly needed.

"So, it would be good to keep Rep. Harman -- indeed, doubly good, because she is an energetic overseer (which is not always the case)," Johnson wrote in an e-mail response to a reporter's query.

The independent panel that probed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the intelligence failures leading up to them recommended that members "should serve indefinitely on the intelligence committees, without set terms, thereby letting them accumulate expertise."

The leaders of the 9-11 Commission recently sent a letter to Pelosi and Hastert reminding them of the commission's recommendations for congressional reform.

"They wrote a letter that reiterated their recommendations and this was among the several points that were made," a representative said. "No specific names were mentioned or things of that kind, but they did focus on the recommendation."