Once again, the power of pork to sustain incumbents gets its best demonstration in the person of John Murtha (D-PA). The acknowledged king of earmarks in the House gains the attention of the New York Times editorial board today, which notes the cozy and lucrative relationship between more than two dozen contractors in Murtha’s district and the hundreds of millions of dollars in pork he provided them. It also highlights what roughly amounts to a commission on the sale of Murtha’s power as an appropriator:
Mr. Murtha led all House members this year, securing $162 million in district favors, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. … In 1991, Mr. Murtha used a $5 million earmark to create the National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence in Johnstown to develop anti-pollution technology for the military. Since then, it has garnered more than $670 million in contracts and earmarks. Meanwhile it is managed by another contractor Mr. Murtha helped create, Concurrent Technologies, a research operation that somehow was allowed to be set up as a tax-exempt charity, according to The Washington Post. Thanks to Mr. Murtha, Concurrent has boomed; the annual salary for its top three executives averages $462,000.
There’s been no report of Mr. Murtha’s profiting personally. “This is about jobs,” the congressman insists. But the Murtha operation — which has become a model for other entrepreneurial lawmakers — is a gross example of quid pro quo Washington. Every one of the 26 beneficiaries of Mr. Murtha’s earmarks in last year’s defense budget made contributions to his campaign kitty, a total of $413,250, according to the newspaper Roll Call.
I’ve written several times about Murtha’s connections to Concurrent and other contractors, but Concurrent really exemplifies the way in which earmarks not only distort federal power, but also works to maintain incumbencies. Murtha created Concurrent as a vehicle for his pork power to reach back into his district. Setting it up as a tax-exempt charity allowed its revenues to remain in the district, rather than contributing to the same federal revenue that Murtha regularly raids. Its top execs make over $400,000 per year, a strange level for a “charity”, and all of it coming from federal contracting where full multibid competiton comprised only 5.5% of their work in 2007.
In return for shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars into his district with no opportunity for other companies to compete for the work, he gives a market advantage to his favorites — and they return the favor. Knowing that Murtha is the only person who keeps them in business, and in Concurrent’s case the reason for their existence at all, they churn out campaign funds in huge numbers for their pork king. Do you wonder why incumbents have a re-election rate of over 90%? This is the reason; people like Murtha get legal kickbacks in order to remain entrenched in power.
In any other context, Murtha would lose his job. If a businessman in the private sector received gifts like this from vendors, his company would kick him to the curb. Not so in Congress; on Capitol Hill, Murtha’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle aspire to such low ethical behavior and compete to gain access to the federal treasury for their own political ambitions. And their constituencies reward them for bringing home pork and keep the vicious cycle in motion.
It will not stop until the constituents make it clear that they want Representatives and Senators who won’t be bought or even rented. When people like John Kline and Jeff Flake stop being a small minority and gain access to the levers of power because the American electorate has sickened of the corruption and elected like-minded politicians, then the Congress may actually start accomplishing the people’s business rather than existing as a sinecure for the compromised and incoherent.