Perils of personality politics

December 14, 2006

In announcing her choice to head the House Intelligence Committee, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi said of Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, "When tough questions are required ... he does not hesitate to ask them."

Turns out, though, he's not so good at answering questions - even easy ones.

During an interview last week with a Congressional Quarterly reporter, Jeff Stein, Mr. Reyes incorrectly identified the Muslim sect to which al-Qaida members belong - though their Sunni beliefs are central to the terrorist group's philosophy - and was unable to identify the Iranian-backed Shiite militia group Hezbollah at all.

Mr. Stein reported that Representative Reyes was only one of many lawmakers who seemed to lack an understanding of ethnic currents driving much of the violence in the Middle East. But he is charged with leading a committee that monitors how intelligence is gathered and used to protect the nation's security, and he should have greater expertise.

Mr. Reyes' chief qualification for the post seems to be that he was next in line in committee seniority behind two others Mrs. Pelosi passed over - Jane Harman, a one-time friend who has earned Mrs. Pelosi's disdain (in part for being too cooperative with Republicans), and Alcee L. Hastings, an impeached federal judge with an image problem. Another plus in Mr. Reyes' favor is his appeal to Hispanic voters.

Is this any way to choose the leader of a committee with a powerful role in the country's defense? It shouldn't be. Mr. Reyes will doubtless survive this initial stumble. But Mrs. Pelosi is batting 0 for 2 on tough judgment calls.

The first misstep was her heavy-handed intervention in the majority leader contest between longtime rival Steny H. Hoyer and John P. Murtha, a Pelosi ally who lost by a wide margin. That seemed an unnecessary fight for an incoming speaker, but at least the prize was a party post - not a policy job.

Representative Harman, the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, was by far the most qualified on the panel for the chairmanship. But Mrs. Pelosi could also have picked from veteran lawmakers not serving on the committee with far more impressive credentials than Mr. Reyes, a former border control agent.

The new speaker is coming into office with sweeping powers and high expectations. She owes it to her party and to the country to govern with professionalism instead of using the post to settle old scores.

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