With the midnight hour approaching Saturday Aug. 4 near the end of a marathon session, Democratic and Republican leaders alike wanted to pass the Defense appropriations bill quickly and start their summer recess. But Republican Rep. Jeff Flake’s stubborn adherence to principle forced an hour-long delay that revealed unpleasant realities about Congress.
Flake insisted on debating the most egregious of the bill’s 1,300 earmarks placed in the Defense money bill by individual House members that authorize spending in their districts. Defending every such earmark was the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee: Democratic Rep. John Murtha, unsmiling and unresponsive to questions posed on the House floor by Flake.
Murtha is called "King Corruption" by Republican reformers, but what happened after midnight Aug. 5 is not a party matter. Democrats and Republicans, as always, locked arms supporting every earmark. It makes no difference that at least seven House members are under investigation by the Justice Department. A bipartisan majority insists on sending taxpayers money to companies in their districts without competitive bidding or public review.
Claims of newly established transparency were undermined by the Saturday late night follies. Flake, who ran a Phoenix, Ariz., think tank (the Goldwater Institute) before coming to Congress in 2001, is immensely unpopular on both sides of the aisle for forcing votes on his colleagues’ pork. He burnished that reputation by prolonging the marathon Saturday session and challenging selected earmarks.
What ensued showed what a sham are claimed earmark reforms. With debate on each earmark limited to five minutes per pro-and-con and roll calls also pressed into five minutes, the House was mainly interested in finishing up and defeating Flake with huge bipartisan majorities. The mood of annoyance with Flake was personified by the 17-term Murtha, who as subcommittee chairman defended and retained every earmark (including notorious infusions of cash to his Johnstown, Pa., district).
Republican Rep. John Campbell, an Orange County, Calif., auto dealer and five-year California state legislator who is serving his first full year in Congress, is a rare ally of Flake. Campbell began the Saturday debate by challenging a $2 million no-bid award to the Sherwin-Williams paint company for a "paint shield" against "microbial threats." The Pentagon did not want this, but Murtha delivered his usual contemptuous retort: "We don’t apologize for [earmarks] because we think the [House] members know as much about what goes on their district as the bureaucrats and the Defense Department."
Flake then forced votes on pet Murtha projects — starting with "something called the Concurrent Technologies Corp." in Johnstown. In the brief time at his disposal, Flake tried to explain to an inattentive House how the company survives as an "incubator" for earmarks "just by getting more earmarks." He next challenged a $39 million earmark for the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, which the Pentagon does not need or want. Murtha was coldly dismissive, denying the reality that these no-bid awards do not allow taxpayers to recapture any benefit that the corporations derive from federal expenditures.
Other Democrats were silent during the sham debate. Nearly every one voted with Murtha, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s powerful lieutenant — fearful of reprisal against their own spending schemes. Rep. Jim Cooper, a moderate from Tennessee, was the only Democrat consistently voting against the earmarks.
Republicans split so that motions by Flake and Campbell lost overwhelmingly. House Minority Leader John Boehner voted against most earmarks, but did not make it a party issue as the rest of the GOP leadership backed Murtha. Two former Republican chairmen of the Appropriations Committee — Jerry Lewis of California and Bill Young of Florida — eagerly joined the debate on Murtha’s side. Lewis, one of the House members under Justice Department investigation, defended one of his own earmarks and treated Flake with sneering contempt for wasting the House’s time.
Flake lacked the time he needed on the House floor to explain complicated interlocking relationships with contributors who benefit from Murtha’s earmarks. Claims of transparency are meaningless when all earmarks survive amid inattention from the news media. But few Republican congressmen are frustrated by GOP complicity as the House of Representatives fast becomes the House of Corruption. Joined by a few like-minded senators, they contemplate publicly repudiating their party leaders.