'If I am corrupt, it is because I take care of my district.'
So powerful was Representative John P. Murtha at one time that he used to put up billboards in his Western Pennsylvania district declaring that “the P is for Power.” Few in Congress dared disagree: he doled out or withheld billions in federal money each year for lawmakers’ pet projects, better known as earmarks.There is much more.
Now, however, a string of federal criminal investigations of contractors or lobbyists close to Mr. Murtha, the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, are threatening to undermine his backroom clout.
In the weeks since the news that prosecutors had raided the offices of the PMA Group — a lobbying firm founded by a former Murtha associate that became a gateway to his office and his biggest source of campaign money — about two dozen rank-and-file Democrats have risked his wrath by calling for a House ethics investigation of the matter. One Democrat has even foresworn seeking earmarks for the military contractors in his district because of ethical concerns about the process.
In a private meeting with the chairman of the House appropriations committee, Mr. Murtha, the unofficial leader of the “old bulls” who oversee the subcommittees, was forced to accept a series of new restrictions on his authority to grant earmarks, Democratic aides briefed on the meeting said. In previous weeks he had already acquiesced to another steep cut in the volume of earmarks he dispenses, down by half this year from a few years ago. He had also accepted new disclosure requirements, including public hearings, that cramp his ability to cut last-minute deals.Now Mr. Murtha lost another fight to block a new rule requiring competitive bidding on earmarked contracts. Furthermore, one of his usual lieutenants — Representative Peter J. Visclosky, Democrat of Indiana and member of the defense subcommittee who is chairman of the energy and water panel — unexpectedly switched sides to back the new restrictions, perhaps because he too is under new scrutiny for his ties to the PMA Group.
While past presidents often courted Mr. Murtha with phone calls and private meetings, President Obama has extended to him no such courtesies. On a visit to the White House, the lawmaker told senior defense officials that it would be “foolish” and “ridiculous” to cancel all of a $13 billion contract to buy new presidential helicopters, as he later recounted to a defense industry newsletter. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has insisted on scrapping the deal as a symbol of waste.
Mr. Murtha has continued his spring tradition of summoning military lobbyists to a big-ticket fund-raising breakfast just as he begins to oversee the year’s military spending bill. And he has vowed to continue steering military contracts to his constituents. “If I am corrupt,” he recently told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it is because I take care of my district.”
Smoke seems to be swirling around all connected to Murtha and his earmark factories. The investigations have made some Democrats gun shy about getting too close to him, but it is probably too late to avoid the taint that will flow from any prosecutions.
Murtha is a long time anti war puke who was diverting spending away from our war efforts to build unneeded businesses in his District. ABC recently did a story on his air port boondoggle. He has also been caught in using Marines involved in action in Iraq as props for his anti war stances. His downfall would be a good thing.
BTW, the military should look at using Osprey aircraft for Marine One presidential transportation. They appear to have the safety bugs worked out and the extra speed and maneuverability would make them an excellent choice.