WITH DEMOCRATS like Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t need Republicans. After Pelosi promised that Democrats would preside over “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress,” Murtha, whom Pelosi unsuccessfully pushed for majority leader, described a Democratic lobbying reform proposal as “total crap.” (He graciously added, however, that he’d support the legislation because “that’s what Nancy wants.”)
Murtha’s latest gift to Pelosi is a confrontation in which he allegedly told Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who had opposed one of Murtha’s pet projects, that “I hope you don’t have any earmarks in the defense appropriation bill because they are gone, and you will not get any earmarks now and forever.” Rogers, a former FBI agent, asserted that Murtha had turned the House floor into an episode of “The Sopranos,” and he filed a resolution accusing his colleague of violating House rules. On Tuesday, the resolution was tabled on a largely party-line vote, but not before Democrats were put excruciatingly on the defensive on what Pelosi has made a signature issue. Expect Republicans to continue making “Sopranos” jokes.
Actually, Tony Soprano is a less likely role model for Murtha than Lyndon B. Johnson, but that’s part of the problem for Pelosi. The Almanac of American Politics describes Murtha in terms that also would suit LBJ: “one of those old-time politicians who operate best in secret.” Unfortunately for Democrats, Murtha’s confrontation with Rogers was public, as was the vote by which the complaint against the master appropriator was put on procedural ice.
It doesn’t help the Democrats’ image that this dispute over Murtha’s comments originated in an earmark, a special-interest provision widely seen as part of the “culture of corruption” decried by Democrats in the last election. Rogers angered Murtha by trying to scuttle $23 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center, located in Murtha’s district and regarded by the Bush administration as duplicative of other agencies.
Thanks to reforms for which Pelosi can take credit, Murtha’s name appeared next to that item in the intelligence authorization bill. Over time, reformers hope that such transparency will deter members of Congress in both parties from inserting earmarks. But Murtha wasn’t deterred, and the survival of his hometown earmark is a reminder that disclosure, while valuable, isn’t a panacea for pork-barrel politics.