Pelosi Proxy Wars

by John Lawrence

Let me stipulate at the outset I am probably not the most objective person to comment on the actions of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, having spent eight years as her chief of staff during For this reason, I generally leave the Pelosi analysis to others and respect, as should all staff people, the confidentiality and confidence entrusted by a political employer.

However, from time to time, assertions concerning the former Speaker are made that are so egregious or misinformed that simply raging at the television or iPhone is inadequate. This week was one of those times.

Twice this week, the issue of the “proxy” arose with respect to Mrs. Pelosi, and in both cases, much of the commentary banter has been so inaccurate that I am rising to the bait and offering a counter opinion. I am prepared for the accusations of being an apologist.

One of these “proxy wars” involved the contest between Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) for the position of Ranking Member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That position, as well as the chairmanship of the panel during the days of the Democratic majority, has been held by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose 40 years of congressional service end with the new year. Both Pallone and Eshoo have been reliable, progressive members of the Committee and the Caucus; both have served in the House since 1993; both have substantial expertise in the complex areas of legislation that fall under Commerce’s jurisdiction.

In the long-passed era in which seniority ruled, Pallone would have been the unquestioned choice. He is, despite their equivalence in House service, senior to Eshoo on the Committee. Pallone’s background, expertise and ability to manage the sprawling committee would not have been in question. The only qualification, it has been said, was a pulse. But those days of unchallenged seniority ended forty years ago, when the incoming members of the 94th Congress rejected three sitting chairmen for reasons of both ideology and competence. Since then, there have been numerous instances when the senior most member of a committee has not been selected for the chairmanship or ranking member role. As it has been noted: your constituents choose you to be a Member, but the Caucus chooses you to be a chair or ranking member.

The Pallone-Eshoo contest purportedly became a proxy war because of the public support given Eshoo by her California colleague and close friend, Nancy Pelosi. Allegedly, as numerous news reports asserted this week, there was discontent and grumbling within the Democratic Caucus about Pelosi’s decision to seek another term as Democratic Leader (a position she won by acclamation), and voting against her favorite in the secret balloting for the Commerce slot was a proxy means for expressing that discontent. This interpretation was given greater currency by reports that Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), whom the press endlessly portrays as dancing a perpetual pas de deux with Pelosi over the leadership of House Democrats, was promoting Pallone’s candidacy. Voting for Pallone, therefore, became a proxy for supporting Hoyer and indirectly rebuking Pelosi.

That’s an intriguing analysis, and makes for good commentary, but it is highly unlikely. Members vote for leaders because they have a vested interest in the outcome of the selection, not to send private messages. Those reasons may include friendship, respect, return of past favors, or how the outcome affects one’s own prospects. It would be surprising if the outcome signaled anything significant about Pelosi’s enduring strength within the Caucus, as some have asserted. After all, Pelosi ‘s candidate for Majority Leader was rejected overwhelmingly by the Caucus in 2006, and she went on to enjoy one of the most successful speakerships in history and another decade as leader of the Party.

Sure, there may have been a vote here or there in which Pelosi or Hoyer’s involvement played a part, and in a close contest, every vote matters. But understanding the actual motivations behind votes requires much more analysis and work than most reporters or so-called “analysts” are prepared to do. Even a New Jersey colleague of Pallone rejected the idea that the decision represented a proxy rejection of Pelosi.

The closeness of the vote, however, raised the issue of the second “proxy” battle that emerged this week involving Pelosi: her decision to reject a request from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to cast an absentee Caucus ballot in the Pallone-Eshoo race. Numerous commentators criticized Pelosi’s refusal to waive House and Caucus rules to allow such a proxy vote to be cast, including Jon Stewart whose anti-Pelosi rant on Tuesday night served to remind us that however entertaining and incisive he is (and I am a faithful and admiring viewer), he is not a substantive analyst of congressional procedure, which is what he was criticizing.

Proxy voting was the fashion in the House for decades, and became widely used after the expansion of subcommittees in the 1970s, which meant that many Members would routinely confront overlapping subcommittee and committee mark-ups on their schedules. Since absences cast doubt over the fate of amendments and bills, and no one wants to be counted as “absent” lest an opponent hint it was due to dereliction of duty, the rules allowed Members to give written proxies to committee members (usually the chairman and ranking member) to cast in their absence. It was not unusual for one of these senior members to have a fistful of proxies that were used to pass or defeat amendments or bills in the absence of most members of the panel.

Proxies were banned in 1995, complicating the mark-up procedure but enhancing the legitimacy of the legislative process. Duckworth sought to circumvent the rules, and for an understandable reason – she is over eight months pregnant and her doctors advised her against traveling to Washington. Duckworth is also a veteran, a double amputee, and a woman, all noted by Stewart and others, but none of which are relevant to the proxy request. Stewart went even further to accuse Pelosi of hypocrisy for effusively advocating the rights of women in the workplace only to rule against Duckworth’s pregnancy-related request, supposedly because the Illinois legislator was a Pallone partisan.

Leaders have to say “no” to members all the time, and the worst mistake a leader can make is to allow an exception to the rule, because doing so ensures that others will also seek waivers, requiring the leader to choose between appropriate and inappropriate excuses – an inherently subjective choice. Yes, Duckworth had a genuine medical excuse, but so do many Members who routinely miss votes. Are waivers to be allowed only for medical excuses? Any medical excuse? Do they require a note from the doctor? What about other demands that require a legislator’s absence from Washington: a funeral, the illness of a spouse or child, a graduation, a wedding, an unspecified “personal problem.” All of these requests, and more, are routinely cited by Members seeking approval to miss floor sessions, and Pelosi has consistently refused to grant her permission. To respond otherwise would open the floodgates and impose on herself the impossible responsibility of separating the justifiable from the frivolous.

So, why single out the Duckworth request? To suggest that her denial of the proxy to Duckworth is at odds with her advocacy of women’s rights in the workplace is without merit. Rights such as paid family leave, equal wages and non-discrimination are unrelated to the Duckworth case. Duckworth’s job security and pay are in no way affected by Pelosi’s decision. There is nothing unique about a medical excuse preventing a Member from attending a meeting or a floor session. When all cases are treated equitably, it is impossible to assert unfairness. If Pelosi had granted Duckworth a waiver but denied one to another Member who required hospitalization or home rest, a charge of inequitable treatment would have been warranted, by the other Member.

So instead Pelosi made the controversial call and, as is so often the case, the press decided to excoriate her without examining the merit of her decision. Give her credit for standing on her principles and being willing to take the heat. Incidentally, that is what leadership is really about.