Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Funny how attempts at congressional ethics reform keep running into roadblocks like Rep. Jack Murtha. The Pennsylvania Democrat and chair of the House defense appropriations subcommittee is best known in this context as the man who once called the ethics package “total crap.” He represents an economically depressed corner of southwest Pennsylvania whose largest city, Johnstown, has lost 5 percent of its population since 1990. Not even considering the man’s unique personal qualities, one senses where this earmark story is headed.

“Murtha has almost — but not quite — single-handedly created a new economy in his district,” concludes Roll Call this week in an overview of the lawmaker’s earmarking activities. Frequently, the money “is for startups that essentially would not be in business were it not for Murtha’s largesse.” In other cases, the pattern shows Mr. Murtha inserting an earmark, after which a company opens a Johnstown office, which in many cases then goes neglected, or never quite grows. In the case Roll Call highlights, an Indiana, Pa., groundbreaking for Rockville, Md.-based Aeptec Microsystems is all glory at the outset. Years later, the building is nearly unoccupied a month after its opening. Meanwhile, the firm’s federal contracts, as secured through Mr. Murtha’s earmarks, mushroom.

“The pattern that appears dominant is that the companies’ federal contract dollars expand shortly after they open an office in the 12th Congressional {bullet}istrict — though it is not entirely clear how much of their work is actually conducted in the district,” the newspaper concludes.

With Murtha Inc. calling the shots on defense appropriations, some are chortling that he fancies himself a kind of taxpayer-backed venture capitalist operating in service to his job-hungry district. To judge by the fruits, though, the unindicted “Abscam” coconspirator could not be considered a very successful “venture capitalist.” We’d stick with a more traditional label like pork-barreller.

The self-styled “most ethical and honest Congress in history” must get a grip on Mr. Murtha and friends if it is to make any headway whatsoever on ethics reforms. At this rate, Mr. Murtha just about torpedoes whatever chance House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to deliver on her campaign promises.

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