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Jane Harman Weighs In on Israel's Hold Over Congress

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Economists have a concept they call "revealed preferences." The basic idea is that it's one thing to ask someone how much they value something. It's another thing to watch the economic choices that they make, from which you can draw inferences about what their true preferences are, regardless of what they say.

A lot of ink has been spilled about the question of to what degree the Israeli government has the ability to make the U.S. Congress do things. The exact truth is hard to know, partly because U.S. foreign policy is also awful in areas of the world where the Israel Lobby is presumably not weighing in as much, so it's assess exactly what the Israel Lobby's specific contribution is to the particular awfulness of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And because there are particular reasons that have nothing to do with Israel for U.S. policy to be worse in the Middle East than it is in other areas. And also because a lot of folks clearly have incentives to overstate or understate the influence of the Lobby.

What I find most fascinating about the Jane Harman-AIPAC-Gonzales-FISA scandal is
what it suggests Representative Jane Harman's actual working model was of how Congress works.

[For the purpose of this argument I am assuming that the CQ and New York Times reports are accurate. Rep. Harman has denied them and demanded that the alleged transcript of the wiretapped call be released. You can watch Harman's denial on MSNBC here. You can read and listen to her denial on NPR - where she seems to deny, then concede, then deny again that the alleged conversation took place - here. Note my concern here is not whether Rep. Harman broke any law, but what the scandal reflects in terms of beliefs about how Congress operates as a political matter.]

The allegations suggest that Jane Harman believed that if the Israeli government decided that Harman should be the chair of the Intelligence Committee, and communicated that belief to Nancy Pelosi through the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, it was significantly more likely that Harman would become chair of the Intelligence Committee. And that she believed that difference in probability was significant enough to justify taking a significant risk.

That she believed that she was taking a real risk is indicated by the reports that at the end of the wiretapped phone call with the suspected Israeli agent, Harman said, "This conversation doesn't exist."

And if this was Harman's actual belief about how to make things happen in Congress, it's a very significant fact. After all, Jane Harman was in a position to know. She's got many years of experience in Washington political games. She's close to AIPAC. She's close to the Israeli government. She's close to Pelosi. She knows how these actors interact.

So first of all, Harman had to believe that if the Israeli government tells AIPAC to do something, AIPAC is very likely to do it, without asking for much explanation. And second, she had to believe that if AIPAC tells Nancy Pelosi to do something, Nancy Pelosi is very likely to do it, without asking for much explanation. In this case, the mechanism was allegedly that media mogul Haim Saban would threaten to withhold campaign contributions to Pelosi. Given that Pelosi has a safe seat, this wouldn't seem to be that much of a threat to her personally, so in order to believe that this was a credible threat Harman had to believe that Pelosi had some proclivity to accede to such a threat.

Of course in the event Harman did not become the Intelligence Chair and there is no record as yet that this scheme led to any interaction with Pelosi or her staff. So I do not mean to suggest that Pelosi or any member of her staff had any direct involvement in the scandal, since I am not aware of any evidence that this is true. And furthermore I am quite aware that we really don't know yet what Harman did or didn't do, and therefore any inference from her actions about what she did or didn't believe is speculative.

But as a judgment of how people perceive the Democratic leadership, I do think the scandal has implications that the Democratic leadership should consider. The belief that the Israeli government can tell the Democratic leadership what to do is apparently so widespread that the set of believers seems to include high-ranking Democratic Members of Congress. Can Democratic leaders really be content with this? If now there is no investigation of this matter - if not a criminal investigation, how about a referral to the House ethics committee? - won't this outcome be perceived to validate the belief?