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The Mixed Messages of Nancy Pelosi

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Official Congressional Portrait of Nancy Pelosi
Official Congressional Portrait of Nancy Pelosi
(Image by Federal Government of the United States, Author: Lauren Victoria Burke)
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi opposed ending bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA in 2013, and in 2014 tells President Obama that no Congressional approval is needed in order to take action in Iraq.

It is increasingly well-known that many prominent Democrats, notably the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House, are partisan hacks who publicly criticized unnecessary wars and NSA wiretapping while George W. Bush was President, but remain silent, or even vocally supportive, with regard to the same unconstitutional policies of the Obama administration. This shows why new leadership is badly needed.

In June, while President Obama was meeting the Congressional leaders regarding the situation in Iraq, Nancy Pelosi was adamant in claiming that there is no need for Congressional authorization for Obama to take action, up to and including airstrikes, in Iraq. James Clyburn, the 3rd highest-ranking Democrat in the House, was even more vocally in favor of war, saying that the situation in Iraq "cries out for drone strikes."

However, in the prior week Pelosi stated that quelling ISIS is not the US's responsibility. And subsequent to the meeting with President Obama, Pelosi voted in favor of Rep. Barbara Lee's amendment to prevent funds from being expended for the 2002 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq, which would have effectively repealed the 2002 AUMF. Rep. Lee, one of the few members of Congress who is consistent on foreign policy issues, was clear in stating that her intention behind offering the amendment was to stop any potential escalation in Iraq. One must wonder: did Pelosi tell Obama he needs no additional authority from Congress to act in Iraq, then vote to take away that authority Pelosi claimed he already had?

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Lee's amendment (in addition to two other related amendments) did not pass the GOP-led House. A solid majority of Democrats did vote in favor of Lee's amendments, notable exceptions being Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, the 2nd and 3rd ranked Democrats in the House, who cowardly voted 'no.'

Nancy Pelosi's 'yes' vote must be put in perspective, or else people might mistakenly believe Pelosi actually did want to restrict the Obama administration's ability to act militarily in Iraq. As stated above, two high-ranking Democratic congress members voted 'no,' as did 33 others. The actual vote result was 182 to 231 against. It therefore becomes apparent that if those 35 Democrats had voted in favor of the amendment, it would have passed. Pelosi likely knew her 'yes' vote would not make any difference, aside from providing political cover so her constituents, who overwhelmingly opposed the Iraq War in 2003, would not become angered over her obviously unprincipled partisanship.

Pelosi's actions demonstrate her desire to please the Obama administration by saying, "go right ahead and do what you wish in Iraq. We (Congress) won't try to stop you," then, recognizing the need to appear to agree with her constituents as well as the American people, votes in a way that appears anti-war. It's the best of both worlds for Pelosi, but of course, she could never have voted for the Lee amendment if not for being assured that it could not pass anyway. Case in point: Pelosi's vote against the Amash-Conyers amendment in July 2013 to end bulk collection of telephone records by the NSA.

The amendment failed, but did come strikingly close to passing with strong bipartisan support, no thanks to Pelosi and other members of the leadership, who were quite shaken by the prospect of such an amendment passing. It is also worth noting that, while Pelosi has been an apologist for the Obama administration with regard to the NSA's activities, Pelosi was nothing short of outraged in 2006 when the story broke about illegal wiretapping by the NSA (which would later be made legal retroactively) by the Bush administration.

Pelosi did vote in favor of the USA Freedom Act, a bill with the stated purpose of reining in the NSA; however, the final bill was watered down so much that even high-profile neoconservatives like Rep. Peter King voted in favor of it. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a strong supporter of the original bill, withdrew its support for the bill after provisions such as having a civil-liberties advocate before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court were pulled from the bill.

It is not that party defections in roll-call voting are necessarily a bad thing, even when such defections come from members of the leadership. In fact, a major test of Congress member's principles is their ability to stand up to political pressure and vote the right way, regardless of how their party votes. However, there is a very real problem with party defections when they are a consequence of cowardice and taking orders from higher above, rather than personal principles or listening to one's constituency. And when high-ranking members of Congress defect, it begs the question of just why they are defecting, and why they are not trying to sway other members of their party to do the same. A complete lack of leadership comes to mind. Nonetheless, those members who overcame that lack of leadership and still voted the right way should be commended, but not before those same members vote to throw out the current "leadership" and put in new leaders with true principles.

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John Brock holds a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in city planning. His writing interests include American politics, the U.S. Congress, anti-war activism, health care, civil liberties, and economic democracy. He (more...)

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