Pelosi should take a page from Tip O'Neill's playbook

Pelosi should take a page from Tip O'Neill's playbook
© Greg Nash

In 1977, House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) faced Democratic President Jimmy Carter's top priority — sweeping energy legislation — that split his party and was in the purview of multiple, competing House committees.

The speaker confronted the congressional old bulls who ran these committees and created a special ad hoc committee to tackle the issue and to reduce the competing claims. It basically worked.

Today’s impeachment controversy facing House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas MORE (D-Calif.) is much different and far more serious. There are, however, political or congressional parallels.

Pelosi should name a special ad hoc committee to deal with the Mueller report and the compelling case that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE probably committed impeachable offenses.

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It wouldn't be an impeachment proceeding but a prelude to that possibility. The analogy would be the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee, which set the stage for the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment actions the following year.

Following the incriminating report by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE, House Democrats face an excruciating dilemma: Mueller produced compelling evidence of illegal acts while unable to consider an indictment against the sitting president under Justice Department rules.

Yet the issue of impeachment divides the country and, with the absence of any Republican support, now risks a reprise of the partisan 1998 Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMellman: Which is the right question? NY prosecutors urge appeals court not to block subpoena for Trump's tax returns Sherrod Brown: 'Terrible mistake' for Democratic nominee to support 'Medicare for All' MORE impeachment charade.

Politically, Pelosi's party is split, with the left wing — including a few presidential candidates — demanding impeachment now, while many of her new members, elected in swing districts last fall, fear this is premature and a distraction from the issues, like health care, on which they successfully ran.

An ad hoc panel would be a political stopgap measure, acceding to the demands for a full-fledged inquiry, with a clear focal point, without starting a partisan, formal impeachment proceeding.

It also makes sense substantively. There is an abundance of material in the 448-page Mueller report with unanswered questions that should be pursued. On this — and with public testimony from the likes of Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who provided damning specifics on Trump's attempted obstruction of the investigation, to a subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpWhite House condemns violent video Backlash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics WHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets MORE — it can add to the public’s understanding.

The contention that even former White House officials like McGahn can't be required to testify is nonsense. House Republicans in the 1990s hauled up several counsels and the chief of staff to President Clinton; President Nixon’s staffers dominated the Senate Watergate Committee led by Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.).

I don't think the existing order in the House has much chance of accomplishing this. Instead, there will be multiple inquests with overlapping charges and pronounced differences in the quality of staff and members; there will be more than a little showboating. 

The front-line House Judiciary Committee with its camera-loving chairman, Rep. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBarr to speak at Notre Dame law school on Friday The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment Ignore the hype — this is not an impeachment inquiry MORE (D-N.Y.), shows no signs of measuring up to its 1974 predecessor panel under the quiet, capable leadership of the late Peter Rodino (D-N.J.). The notion, advanced by some, that all these committees can coordinate and avoid chaos is naive.

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The House Intelligence Committee has to have responsibility for the sensitive national security matters, much of it redacted in the report that the Justice Department released to the public. Its able chairman, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats see John Bolton as potential star witness Top State Department official arrives for testimony in impeachment probe The Hill's Morning Report - Trump grapples with Turkey controversy MORE (D-Calif.), would do well to lower his public profile during this process. There are articulate members in the House who can perform this task.

If Pelosi appointed a special committee, most of the affected chairmen would raise hell. Yet, none today are as formidable as Rep. John DingellJohn DingellEnergy efficiency cannot be a partisan issue for Washington Polling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress MORE (D-Mich.), whom O'Neill stood down in formulating the 1977 select Energy Committee.

There is plenty of business for these other committees. Judiciary has oversight of a politically oriented Justice Department and major issues like voting rights. The Ways and Means Committee is trying to get Trump's tax returns and analyzing the effects of the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill. There are countless opportunities to scrutinize this ethically challenged administration.

Most important, after 100 days of not much action, House Democrats need to focus on some legislation. 

Who might head any select committee? The best choice is unavailable: Pelosi.

My candidate would be Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCracks emerge in White House strategy as witness testifies Overnight Defense: Pentagon insists US hasn't abandoned Kurds | Trump expands sanctions authority against Turkey | Ex-Ukraine ambassador says Trump pushed for her ouster On The Money: Trump announces limited trade deal with China | Appeals court rules against Trump over financial records | Trump expands authority to sanction Turkey MORE (D-Md.), a veteran of congressional investigations with a prime-time-ready staff. He could appoint an experienced lawyer or prosecutor to drive the public questioning.

Hearings might last three or four months. If, by late fall, this process hasn't produced a significant change in public opinion or convinced a few Republicans that Trump has committed any reasonable definition of high crimes and misdemeanors — both improbable — then it's futile to go any further.

Hopefully, the electorate will be more informed, and the fallback might be a censure.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.