Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Earmarking John Murtha

Democratic Congressman John Murtha is the king of pork barrel legislation, according to this eye-popping piece in today's Wall Street Journal. Here's the introduction:

If John Murtha were a businessman, he'd be the biggest employer in this town.

The powerful U.S. congressman has used his clout on Capitol Hill to create thousands of jobs and steer billions of dollars in federal spending to help his hometown in western Pennsylvania recover from devastating floods and the flight of its steelmakers.

More is on the way. In the massive 2008 military-spending bill now before Congress -- which could go to a House-Senate conference as soon as Thursday -- Mr. Murtha has steered more taxpayer funds to his congressional district than any other member. The Democratic lawmaker is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which will oversee more than $459 billion in military spending this year.

Johnstown's good fortune has come at the expense of taxpayers everywhere else. Defense contractors have found that if they open an office here and hire the right lobbyist, they can get lucrative, no-bid contracts. Over the past decade, Concurrent Technologies Corp., a defense-research firm that employs 800 here, got hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to Rep. Murtha despite poor reviews by Pentagon auditors. The National Drug Intelligence Center, with 300 workers, got $509 million, though the White House has tried for years to shut it down as wasteful and unnecessary. Another beneficiary: MTS Technologies, run by a man who got his start some 40 years ago shining shoes at Mr. Murtha's Johnstown Minute Car Wash.

A review by The Wall Street Journal of dozens of such contracts funded by Mr. Murtha's committee shows that many weren't sought by the military or federal agencies they were intended to benefit. Some were inefficient or mismanaged, according to interviews, public records and previously unpublished Pentagon audits. One Murtha-backed firm, ProLogic Inc., is under federal investigation for allegedly diverting public funds to develop commercial software, people close to the case say. The company denies wrongdoing and is in line to get millions of dollars more in the pending defense bill.

Mr. Murtha, a gruff, combat-decorated former Marine, was thrust into the national spotlight last year by his opposition to the Iraq war. Yet he has long been known in Washington, where he wields power like an old-fashioned political boss and has become a lightning rod for Republican attacks. With years of strong support for the military, he's also been an important voice for Democrats in battles over war funding and troop withdrawal.
Or, more accurately, he's been an important voice in the hardline left's Iraq surrender campaign. That's enough of a turnoff, but he's also a foul-mouthed bully:

In Washington, Mr. Murtha - Jack, as he's widely known - is used to getting his way. At 6-feet-6 and 75 years old, he has been known to physically intimidate opponents and fly into a red-faced rage when crossed. (One recent tirade, against a Republican who had tried to cut funding for a Johnstown earmark, found its way onto YouTube.) He curses like the Parris Island drill sergeant he once was, punctuating conversations by punching a finger into the chest of foes and friends alike.

Read the whole thing.

While Murtha's the pork-barrel king, he's just one powerful practitioner in the longstanding and widely-accepted practice of bringing home the bacon to constituents. Both parties are implicated in the practice (as the article notes, congressional earmarks are down this year under the Democrats).

To be fair, though, it makes good sense to use institutional rules to bring tangible benefits back home to the district. But as the article amply demonstrates, the enormous sums pumping through the earmarking system generate powerful incentives for corruption and waste. Even amid calls for reform, legislative logrolling keeps earmarking alive. It's difficult to change a system in which those who would seek to abolish a practice are the same recipients of the system's rewards.

That said, I just don't like Murtha (hopefully he'll be earmarked for a premature exit in 2008's elections), and I'm obviously not the only one. Michelle Makin, for example, is having fun with the article, and she provides this nifty Murtha Abscam YouTube as well:

See who's also blogging at Memeorandum.


UPDATE: The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat reports that Republican William T. Russell, "a career Army man," and veteran of both Iraq wars, will challenge Murtha for control of Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district in 2008.

Hat tip: Sister Toldjah.