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Murtha Combines the Worst of Both Factions

By Jay Bryant

The Democratic Party has long been composed of two factions - the radical faction and the establishment faction. They have occasionally battled (old Mayor Daley and the McGovernites at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, to cite one ancient example), but the two groups generally get along pretty well, the bond between them firmly welded because their separate goals merge in a desire to spur the growth of government at every opportunity.

For the radicals, government growth is ideological; they believe the nation would be better off if government controlled more aspects of its economic and social behavior, with the notable and perhaps not unrelated areas of sex and marijuana. Members of the establishment faction generally regard such dreamy-eyed liberalism as fatuous, but mouth its rhetoric nonetheless because they can hardly be expected to explain what they're really up to.

But there are occasionally crossover figures; on the one side establishment men (and women?) who don't just recite radical phrases to cover their backsides, but actually become leaders in left-wing circles; on the other, genuine leftists who succumb to the corrupting temptations of establishment power.

Now comes the latest example of the establishment faction archetype suddenly thrust into prominence and popularity as a radical hero: Congressman John Murtha.

This old warhorse has represented the 12th District of Pennsylvania since he won a special election in 1974 by 122 votes. In the Abscam scandal of 1981, he was an unindicted co-conspirator; the House appeared ready to censure him, but the vote in the ethics committee apparently split 6-6 on party lines. The committee's special counsel immediately resigned in disgust, and the Congressman who lobbied on Murtha's behalf was later quoted as saying that Murtha had lied to him about his role in the scandal, in which FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs offered congressmen $50,000 bribes in return for favors.

For the next twenty-plus years, Murtha's Congressional career was highlighted by efforts to stymie ethics legislation and build a pork-barrel empire. He achieved some measure of success in the latter goal in the most recent Congress, when his total earmarks topped $150 million mark, leading all representatives.

By then, Murtha had done his famous about-face on Iraq, thus becoming the darling of the radical faction, among the benefits of which is that the national media, in reporting on his new-found celebrity, invariably referred to him as an ex-Marine instead of an unindicted Abscam co-conspirator.

But not everyone in the media has been willing to sweep Murtha's past under the rug. At Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, reporters have been looking at Murtha's earmarks in detail.

Earmarks come in two varieties; let's call them toxic and smelly. Both are bad, but the toxic are really bad. Smelly earmarks work like this: a Representative from Maine puts an earmark into the Defense Appropriation Bill requiring that a certain project and/or a certain amount of money be spent at Bath Iron Works, the big shipbuilding company located on the mouth of the Kennebec River. They build outstanding ships at Bath, every bit as good as the ones built in Norfolk or Pascagoula. But the Representative from Maine wants the economic benefits in his or her district, not in Virginia or Mississippi. And of course the Representatives from those states put in their earmarks, too. What's bad about the earmarks is that they distort the market and short circuit the bidding process, so all the projects wind up costing more than they would otherwise.

Toxic earmarks are a whole order of magnitude worse: they require money appropriated for a general spending category must be spent with a vendor run by cronies of the earmarking Representative. These vendors may or may not be legitimate but they would never pass muster in a fair competition for the contract. They get the job only because of the earmark.

Thus Murtha earmarked money for an outfit called the Pennsylvania Association for Individuals with Disabilities (PAID) - at least $650,000 since 2003 according to and article by Roll Call reporter Paul Singer. PAID's founder and president is a former Murtha staffer, Carmen Scialabba, and claims to "represent 60 million persons with disabilities." You'd think an organization of that size would be well known, but Singer called several major disability organizations in Pennsylvania, and none of them had ever heard of PAID.

The whole thing came to light when former Senator Max Cleland, who had just been named to the PAID board of directors, abruptly resigned. Apparently what happened was that Cleland, relying on Murtha's description of the group, had agreed to a request to lend his name, but when he found out what was really going on, made a quick exit.

Cleland may also have noticed that all the other directors were Murtha cronies, with the exception of Congressman Patrick Kennedy, (D-RI), who is listed as an honorary board member and received the only campaign contributions ever given out by a PAC affiliated with Scialabba's consulting firm. The Singer article details a whole web of interconnections between various organizations all of which have ties to Murtha, and many of which have received earmarked Federal funds.

Toxic earmarking as corrupt as that would land any Republican and many Democratic Congressmen in trouble with the law and bring about a severe hounding by the national press corps. It hasn't happened yet for Murtha, which means his new radical celebrity may be insulating him with the mainstream media.

It remains to be seen if the old warhorse turned dove can keep on keeping on, or if, perhaps, Washington may be ready for at least a little reform.

jaybryant@erols.com

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