IN CASE YOU WERE worried that the 110th Congress was producing debate of too much substance, this week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) stands accused of everything from hypocrisy on global warming to wrongheadedness about Iraq -- all based on a request she never exactly made for a jumbo-sized military jet that she has never actually flown aboard as speaker.
The fuss started last week, but conservatives waited until Wednesday to really let loose the dogs of warp. At issue is the appropriate mode of transport between Washington and Pelosi's home in the Bay Area. In the old days, the speaker of the House would have just taken a commercial flight, but after 9/11 it was decided that the No. 2 in line for the presidency should travel with more security, so the military began providing jets and Air Force crews.
Inconveniently for Pelosi, the small jets that were used to shuttle former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert between the Beltway and Illinois can't make it to the West Coast in bad weather without stopping to refuel. So her office asked if the rules allowed her to take a larger jet capable of flying nonstop, such as a C-40, which contains beds and business-class seating. Then a firestorm erupted.
The right-leaning Washington Times wrote a blistering editorial accusing Pelosi of being an elitist and wasting taxpayer money. Prominent Republicans in Congress followed suit, and CNN's Lou Dobbs groused that "Nancy Pelosi ... can now fly in style at your expense."
At least 21 government officials can request transport via C-40, including those as far down on the presidential succession list as the secretary of education; to do so is hardly an abuse of power. Even the Bush administration, rarely shy about slinging partisan mud, seems disgusted by the attacks on Pelosi. "This is a silly story, and I think it's been unfair to the speaker," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.
By then, the crazy train had long left the station. The New York Post, under an editorial headlined "Nancy Pelosi, Carbon Criminal," accused the speaker of being insincere about fighting global climate change. The Republican Study Committee, a coalition of conservative members of Congress, issued a statement equating Pelosi's inquiry with Democratic opposition to President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq; it seems the jet proves that Democrats have skewed judgment about what's in the national interest.
Hopefully, the federal government can figure out how senior political officials can fly coast to coast both in safety and nonstop. Until then, buckle up -- the hot air ahead is likely to be turbulent.