Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who promised tough-on-corruption Democratic leadership, has been forced into an immediate series of ethics decisions that test that resolve. She flubbed the first one, but she just got one right.
Pelosi's Democratic Steering Committee resisted any political urge to restore the assignment of Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson to the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Bad signal, bad timing, bad everything -- and keeping him out was a good move.
Jefferson won a runoff election over the weekend, even though he's under the shadow of a federal corruption investigation and FBI allegations that he had $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer. Apparently, those salient points alone were not enough to keep voters from handing him a ninth term.
To be fair, Jefferson -- who had been stripped of the post at Pelosi's urging last June -- has not been charged with any crime, and he has denied any wrongdoing. But his denials are such a familiar refrain in Washington -- where cold cash has its influence, but few people actually store that much of it in their freezers.
Democrats won the House by a sweeping margin, largely based on voter discontent with how things were going in Iraq and with a scandal-plagued Republican Party. Pelosi promised a new day. Now, she finds herself faced with scandal-tinged fellow Democrats with high expectations for top positions. One of her first moves was to try to get the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship for Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, a former judge who had been impeached by Congress and removed from the bench despite his acquittal in the 1980s of federal bribery charges. Still ahead is a decision about a West Virginia representative in line to chair the committee that oversees the FBI despite questions about his own business dealings, and there's another Ways and Means Democrat who recently was admonished by the House Ethics Committee as well.
Pelosi must show some ethical mettle in dealing with these issues. She has to be perceived as a strong leader unwilling to give in to the usual politics. And the Jefferson issue also posed additional challenges, because of questions about prepunishment raised by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Pelosi had to balance good judgment against the weight of politics in dealing with Jefferson, who represents the first black member of Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction and the influence of New Orleans' elected representatives in Congress. That political weight is increased by her failure to win a leadership post for Hastings, also an African-American. But if the main issue is character -- and for the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, it surely is -- then it would be unwise for Pelosi to restore Jefferson to his seat on that committee. She is supposed be leading an ethical House. That's hard to accomplish from a base of providing political favors.
The congresswoman needs to show strength in her new position as speaker of the House, and that includes standing up to her own party. Jefferson's victory is sealed. His position on any committee of importance should not be.