Thursday, June 22, 2006

Earmarks, Check-Kiting... and John Murtha

The Washington Times notes that John Murtha may have helped secure earmarks that benefitted his brother and a former staffer:

Last June, the Los Angeles Times reported how the ranking member on the defense appropriations subcommittee has a brother, Robert Murtha, whose lobbying firm represents 10 companies that received more than $20 million from last year's defense spending bill. "Clients of the lobbying firm KSA Consulting -- whose top officials also include former congressional aide Carmen V. Scialabba, who worked for Rep. Murtha as a congressional aide for 27 years -- received a total of $20.8 million from the bill," the L.A. Times reported.

In early 2004, according to Roll Call, Mr. Murtha "reportedly leaned on U.S. Navy officials to sign a contract to transfer the Hunters Point Shipyard to the city of San Francisco." Laurence Pelosi, nephew of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, at the time was an executive of the company which owned the rights to the land. The same article also reported how Mr. Murtha has been behind millions of dollars worth of earmarks in defense appropriations bills that went to companies owned by the children of fellow Pennsylvania Democrat, Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Meanwhile, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog group, lists Mr. Murtha as the top recipient of defense industry dollars in the current 2006 election cycle.

The emerging earmark scandal is beginning to remind me of the House check-kiting scandal. Members of Congress were permitted to write checks and have them cashed regardless of their account balances; the checks were covered by the deposits of other account holders. Members of Congress in general did not see this as a big deal, and there were some very large abusers of the privilege. The key thing was that the culture suddenly changed, and a practice that no one thought twice about came to be regarded as scandalous overnight.

In the same way, most appropriations lobbyists are people who have either worked on the Appropriations Committees, or worked for Congressmen who sit on the Committees. Many knew the people who are now their employers when they worked in government; many in the private sector now lobby their former employers or coworkers. Personal ties, geographic ties, and political ties all tend to encourage lasting relationships between congressmen, staffers, and earmark-seekers. This is standard operating procedure.

In a system such as this, you will be able to find many instances where an earmark secured by a member benefits a former staffer, or where a government employee goes to work for a client whose earmark requests he/she handled while in Congress. But like the check-kiting scandal, it seems that the culture may be changing overnight. There may soon be a lot of staffers and congressmen answering questions about practices that they never gave a second thought, just a few days ago.

Hat tip, Powerline.

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