Today’s unexpected news that Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) is departing the US House of Representatives to take over as the new Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center is a tremendous blow to the Congress and in particular House Democrats. By far one of the most powerful and influential voices on national security, homeland security and intelligence matters, Harman has been one of the real leaders in the Congress on all of these issues and has not been afraid to speak her peace regardless of whose feathers she might ruffle.
While she may have been a Democrat, she was not afraid to challenge those in her political party that she thought weren’t being tough enough in addressing threats from extremists in all of their forms. As a result of her directness, it earned her the enmity of former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who booted her from the House Intelligence Committee as well as two separate primary challenges to represent her California District that accused her of not being liberal enough for her constituents.
Counterbalancing her always tough approach in going after those who were out to attack Americans and our nation’s interests, Rep. Harman was also not at all shy or intimidated by senior intelligence or national security professionals in giving them a fully public dressing down over concerns regarding civil rights and civil liberties, as well as various government programs and approaches.
The same could be said when she was championing increased information sharing between federal players with state and local law enforcement officials. Frankly put, there was no one better than her when it came to these issues and really no one more effective in articulating the arguments for making program improvements and relationship building.
Her departure from the Hill is actually a bigger blow to Congressional leadership on these issues than the recent announcement of Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s retirement from the Senate following the 2012 elections. Lieberman will still be around for almost two years and be able to influence these issues. Harman’s departure though seems to be almost immediate. While I don’t expect that she will be silent on these issues, especially given the good works that the Wilson Center does, not having her in Congress takes away a real, experienced hand in shaping the federal budget and related legislation. Given the coming congressional battles, that is a blow that will be felt on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Harman will certainly be missed, but it is also worth noting that she raised the bar for her congressional colleagues when it comes to being knowledgeable on security issues. She did her homework, built relationships internationally, nationally, and locally, and was always willing to challenge people, programs, and issues to learn more. She was not shy about it either. Knowledgeable hearing witnesses knew she was not going to be serving tea and cookies when it came to question time or one-to-one meetings.
Those who would mistake her as an empty political vessel just playing to cameras and reporters in the Q&A period would often find themselves seeking a surgeon to repair their ego and any other body part that she may have removed with exacting precision. Harman was always tough, but she was fair. In the end, those are the types of members we want working these issues. I have no doubt that she’ll do great things for the Wilson Center, but Congress is really going to miss her.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.