Last night (November 14, 2006) John Murtha struck a blow for idealism by telling the “Bluedog Democrats” (44 fiscally conservative Dems), many of them newly elected, that ethics reform was “total crap.” For some new congresspeople, this must have been something like Murtha taking them into a secret room in Rayburn Building and showing them something so nasty that it raised the hair on the back of their necks.
Conservative as I am, I don't accept the "Saturday Night Live" version that Pelosi had to select Murtha because John Gotti was no longer available.
Of course, Murtha’s friend and colleague Nancy Pelosi ran the Democratic campaign on the basis that ethics reform was not, well, total crap. Exit polls showed that voters cared more about corruption in Congress than they did the long, hard slog in Iraq.
As we know, Jack Murtha has almost never met a poll he didn’t like, but those exit surveys about corruption aren’t likely to become part of his stump speech.
Much of the “culture of corruption” involves “earmarks,” money directed toward projects in specific congressional districts. Because of his work on the appropriations related to defense Murtha is a major dispenser of said earmarks – including the $120 million in such funds he brought in 2006 to Pennsylvania.
Tonight (November 15, 2006) Chris Matthews will interview Murtha on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” I’m afraid this encounter will be somewhat reminiscent of Britney Spears’s and Madonna’s last encounter, where they gave each other a big, sloppy kiss.
Chris Matthews is famous for two things: (1) holding 16 PhDs, all of them honorary – i.e., none of them earned; (2) having been challenged to a duel by Senator Zell Miller; (3) having served for six years as the top aide to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Matthews is largely the political creation of Tip O’Neill, the consummate bully. For Matthews, like his mentor, things aren’t right or wrong, but rather doable or undoable.
Murtha is a lot like Chris Matthews, in that he owes his political career to Speaker O’Neill. You can read that story in John Fund’s piece in today’s (November 15, 2006) Wall Street Journal Online (“Meet the New Boss: John Murtha and Congress’s ‘Culture of Corruption’”)
In 1981, Murtha was under heavy criticism for his participation in the ABSCAM scandal. His career depended on the decisions made by House Ethics Committee, and O’Neill thought Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas should join the Committee to save Murtha.
Of course, corruption was a part of O’Neill’s character much the same as that purple birthmark is a part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s face.
As Fund explains it, O’Neill called Wilson into his office and told him to get on the Ethics Committee – pronto. The Texan said he would if O’Neill got him a lifetime seat on the board of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which Wilson called “the best perk in town.”
The Speaker provided the seat, and Wilson did his bidding, which involved taking care of the Murtha matter. “Taking care” meant making the charges go bye-bye.
Before the House investigators could move fully on the Murtha case, they found out “that the committee had concluded there was no justification for an investigation.” The Ethics Committee chairman, Louis Stokes of Ohio, suddenly declared, “The matter is closed.”
Don’t look for such information to be a source of tonight’s “Hardball” questions. In fact, look for a steady stream of softballs – and perhaps some anecdotes about “good ole Tip.”
O’Neill jump-started Matthews’s career, and he just may have kept Murtha out of jail – or at least a lifetime exile in Johnstown, PA.
Over the year, Rep. Murtha has been a major roadblock to ethics reform. In that effort, he worked closely with his friend Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, who was forced from his Ethics Committee seat for under-reporting personal assets and directing earmarks to political allies.
Of course, Murtha has many conservative critics, including yours truly. But what’s interesting is the way many liberals have responded.
For instance, Gary Ruskin, director of the liberal Congressional Accountability Project, told the publication Roll Call that "when it comes to institutional policing of corruption in Congress, John Murtha is a one-man wrecking crew."
Earlier, left-leaning Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called Murtha “one of the most unethical members of Congress.”
She asked, "How can Americans believe that the Democrats will return integrity to the House when future Speaker Pelosi has endorsed an ethically-challenged member for a leadership position? Rep. Murtha is the wrong choice for this job."
Melanie Sloan asks some very good questions. I wouldn’t suggest you stay up late waiting for good answers.
Stephen R. Maloney, author this piece, is no longer on Jack Murtha’s Christmas card list.