Murtha: Will His Anti-War Stance Be Enough?

For good reasons, progressives are split on whether House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi's endorsement of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as the next House majority leader is brilliant or bone-headed. Many activists who are sitting on the sidelines and concluding it makes no difference whether Murtha or the current House minority whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., gets the job are probably right. Both of them bring strong negatives to the job, and progressives will have to keep a firm hold on either of them if the Democratic party is to be the party of common-good politics rather than a pale reflection of Republican conservative cronyism.

Still, Pelosi's endorsement of Murtha is especially disturbing to people who believe that the majority leader must represent more than a courageous voice on a single issue, no matter how important. In many ways Murtha, in Congress since 1969, represents -- proudly -- the old ways Congress has done business that were rejected by disgusted voters earlier this month. As leading Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, he was unabashed in his embrace of the horse-trading of legislative favors endemic in that committee: ''You just need to get the things done, so you give them the votes to get the things done,'' he said in an October interview in The New York Times. ''There is no question that some projects come out of it for our members, and that is not a bad thing.'' He added, ''Deal making is what Congress is all about.''

The projects Murtha is referring to take the form of "earmarks" in appropriations bills -- designated federal funding for specific projects that are frequently tucked into bills at the behest of lobbyists and more often than not happen outside of public scrutiny. Democratic leaders have vowed to at least put some sunlight on the earmarking process by forcing them to be spelled out in clear language in bills and forcing members to attach their name to earmarks they request, but Murtha has not embraced those reforms. Plus, as the Times reported, Murtha's bartering of votes with the Republicans in exchange for legislative favors has proven costly for several key Democratic imperatives, such as an effort by Democrats to force an investigation of contracting fraud in Iraq.

If any committee is in need of a thorough ethical scrubbing, it is the Appropriations Committee, which incubated the scandal that forced Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham out of office and into a federal prison. The chairman of that committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis, is currently under federal investigation for using his post to steer contracts to former Appropriations Committee staff members , and that has even some House Republicans questioning whether he should stay on the committee as ranking minority member in the next Congress.

And a report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington highlights ethics vulnerabilities that Murtha has that go well beyond his being an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam bribery scandal in 1980. His brother, Robert "Kit" Murtha, is a registered lobbyist for KSA Consulting, which directly lobbied Murtha's office on behalf of seven companies which received a total $20.8 million in earmarks. Robert Murtha was hired by a KSA official, Carmen Scialabba, who was a longtime Murtha staffer. Another former Murtha staff member, Paul Magliocchetti, opened a lobbying firm that succeeded in getting some $95 million for its clients through the 2006 defense appropriations bill, according to CREW; the firm and its clients also happen to be among the top contributors to Murtha's re-election campaign.

There is also the fact that Murtha has been significantly worse than his Democratic colleagues in supporting President Bush and opposing his own Democratic leadership, while Hoyer has been a far more loyal to Democratic policy position. A voting analysis by Congressional Quarterly shows that in 2005 Murtha supported President Bush on 38 percent of his votes, far more than the 24 percent of the time Hoyer supported Bush. And while Hoyer voted for the Democratic position on bills at least 9 out of every 10 votes since President Bush has been in office, Republicans have been able to count on Murtha bolting from the party at least 20 percent and as much as 34 percent of the time.

Still, it is understandable why Pelosi, and many progressives, will forgive Murtha these transgressions, given Murtha's bold call for withdrawing troops from Iraq. That move put him well ahead of the rest of the party leadership and proved instrumental in positioning the party for ousting the pro-war Republican majority in both houses of Congress. "Your strong voice for national security, the war on terror and Iraq provides genuine leadership for our party," Pelosi wrote Murtha in her endorsement letter. For some, that's all that matters. "Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not holding Murtha up as some paragon of virtue," writes Taylor Marsh in The Huffington Post. "But he's a hero on Iraq that brought us all to victory last Tuesday. Kids are dying and there is no good road through, no good choices. Murtha knows it and he can make the case. He can also stand up to anything Bush or anyone else offers up and do so forcefully."

Hoyer publicly distanced himself from Murtha's withdrawal call at that time and helped amplify Democratic division on the issue. And Hoyer has his own track record of old-boy-network behavior with K Street. The Nation's Ari Berman noted in January, as both parties were jockeying for leadership roles on ethics reform, that Hoyer was busy nurturing his own version of the Republicans' discredited K Street Project, cementing ties with lobbyists that could be cultivated for campaign cash for the 2006 election. Hoyer got on's bad list -- not to mention the bad list of progressives generally -- by voting for last year's odious, corporate-written bankruptcy bill. On other economic issues, David Sirota writes that Hoyer:

[V]oted for the China pact, and a number of other 'free' trade agreements opposed by Murtha and progressive Democrats. He has parroted much of the rhetoric of the Democratic Leadership Council -- the corporate front group that has relentlessly pushed Democrats to provide the crucial congressional votes necessary to pass 'free' trade pacts. As Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch said when Hoyer ran against Pelosi in a previous leadership race: "Hoyer has repositioned himself -- one can only assume for political purposes -- as the DLC, business candidate."

In spite of his record, Hoyer claimed in an interview with the support of "either a majority or close to a majority" of the members of the House's progressive caucus. He said he has voted with House progressives "on a very regular basis" on a cross-section of economic, environmental and equal rights issues and in the past few months has signed letters with Murtha calling for a change of policy in Iraq. Beyond the set of issues that Pelosi has said will be her top priorities for the first 100 hours of her leadership, including an increase in the minimum wage, Hoyer has promised to work with progressives on such issues as universal health care. "What universal coverage is is going to have to be defined," he said, but he called the fact that 46 million Americans do not have health insurance "unconscionable." (Calls to Murtha's office for comment were not returned by either Murtha or a spokesman.)

Murtha supporters are giving Pelosi credit for making a bold, in-your-face move, but it is a move that costs Pelosi credibility with congressional reformers and with social progressives who oppose Murtha on gay rights, abortion rights and gun control. But if Pelosi had chosen Hoyer, she would have ended up with a skillful political operator who some congressional observers have said has skillfully stabbed her in the back and obstructed key progressive imperatives. Perhaps our best hope is that Pelosi will be a much more activist speaker than current Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who was content to stay in the background while Majority Leader Tom DeLay ruthlessly ruled the House. Both Murtha and Hoyer will need a heavy dose of Pelosi's San Francisco liberalism to keep them in check.

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