Saturday, October 07, 2006

Murtha Shouldn't Be Democratic Majority Leader

Late last year, Rep. John Murtha, a long-serving Pennsylvania Democrat and ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Committee in the House, strongly and publicly came out against the war in Iraq and laid out a plan to withdraw on a timeline and redeploy our troops. Republicans attacked him for "cut and run" and he also took flack from Democrats who wanted to be able to criticizing Republicans on the war without having to offer a plan of their own. Of course now, some version of Murtha's idea is more or less the position of a majority of the party(though many Democrats would probably still not admit that openly).

Earlier this year, Mr. Murtha announced his desire to run for Majority Leader should Democrats take control of the House of Representatives after November. He suspended his campaign because he didn't want to divide the party, as Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, current Minority Whip, is next-in-line (since Nancy Pelosi, current Minority Leader, would almost certainly assume the Speakership).

Let me first say, I admired Murtha's outspokeness on Iraq. He said what we all thought, and whether you disagreed with his Iraq plan back then, you pretty much have to admit now that he was absolutely right. So because he's so clearly a stronger leader, and because he's both closer to Nancy Pelosi (whilst she and Hoyer have a strained relationship since they ran against each other for Minority Leader and absolute Democratic cohesiveness will be very important with a narrow majority) and able to get conservative Democrats on board with the agenda, I initially liked the idea of Murtha running against Steny Hoyer.

However, this has since changed since I saw an interview with him on CSPAN and the New York Times published the none-too-flattering article that is linked above. In the interview, Murtha was asked several questions about the need for lobbying and ethics reform in Congress, and he seemed positively dumbfounded by the question - as if he didn't understand why anyone would have a problem with it. Because of the article, we now know why:

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In the last year, Democratic and Republican floor watchers say, Mr. Murtha has helped Republicans round up enough Democratic votes to narrowly block a host of Democratic proposals: to investigate federal contracting fraud in Iraq, to reform lobbying laws, to increase financing for flood control, to add $150 million for veterans’ health care and job training, and to exempt middle-class families from the alternative minimum tax.

In one case that particularly irked Democratic partisans, Mr. Murtha led three others in voting against a politically vulnerable Louisiana Democrat’s proposal to divert money intended to be spent on base closings to research prosthetic limbs for veterans. It failed by one vote.

For their “nays” on that and other matters, all four Democrats were rewarded. In the weeks after the vote, they claimed credit for a total of more than $250 million in earmarks in the 2006 appropriations bills. Mr. Murtha alone brought home about $80 million for his district and $120 million for his state, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks such projects.

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Basically, Murtha delivers Democrats for Republicans on key votes, which increases his clout and ability to get more earmarks, which then, in turn, increases his ability to get more Democratic votes for Republicans and so on.

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Mr. Murtha can punish lawmakers, as well. Those who do not support the defense spending bill, for example, discover their next earmark requests go nowhere. “Let me tell you the facts of life,” Mr. Murtha said he tells balky legislators. “If you vote against this bill, you won’t have any input at all the next time.”

Earmarks — often buried deep in complex bills by unidentified lawmakers — have come under new scrutiny since the conviction last fall of Representative Randy Cunningham, a California Republican on the defense-spending panel who accepted more than $2.4 million in bribes from contractors. The cost of earmarks has tripled in the last decade to about $64 billion a year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Mr. Murtha and other lawmakers say many earmarks are worthwhile, but critics charge that they waste taxpayers’ money, encourage cronyism and foster self-dealing.
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The article goes on into specifics. But it appears Murtha is a politician of the old school, doling out favors and putting the squeeze on reluctant members of his own party with the power of the purse. I don't mind that Murtha is a conservative Democrat for the most part, but how can we successfully argue that Republicans have corrupted Congress and that we will deliver real reform when our own prominent members behave this way? Pelosi has promised as Speaker she would work to reduce earmarks (she says she believes they should be eliminated entirely, which I agree with), but how could she do so with a Majority Leader who opposes any reform? Now I don't know where Hoyer stands on reform, but he doesn't have these charges against him. One can argue Murtha's power brokeing abilities will be key with a narrow majority, but the moral, and eventual political, cost just seems to be too great to me.

I hate having to write this, but Mr. Murtha’s pacts with Republicans should disqualify him for the job. I still think Murtha is a valuable Democrat on some issues, especially the war, and I'm fairly unimpressed with Hoyer, but Murtha shouldn't be our party leader. Period.

4 comments:

Nat-Wu said...

I completely agree. Democrats need to not repeat the mistakes of the Republicans (mistakes which are moral in nature), and having Murtha in charge would be only a little better than having a guy like Hastert in charge. Dems have to prove that they are substantially different from Repubs.

Xanthippas said...

Good post. I agree whole-heartedly; I'm all for bi-partisanship when it serves a purpose other than to consolidate your power over members of your own party.

Anonymous said...

Hoyer is FOR lobbying and earmark reform. Murtha is one of only a handful of Democrats AGAINST them.

Murtha also has plenty of ethics issues. He was one of only 4 Dems on a progressive group’s list of the 25 most corrupt members of Congress (www.beyonddelay.org). It would be stupid to give the right-wing machine such an easy target to attack in our new majority.

Hoyer is ethically clean.

Nat-Wu said...

Good point. Let's hope the majority of Dems see it that way. If only someone could poll the Dems on that.