Growing Constituency for Good Government


Earlier in the week, my colleague Paul Blumenthal expressed justifiable dismay over a report in The Washington Post arguing that the ethical problems of Congress–which can be viewed both as failings of individuals and as the product of an institutional inability to come to grips with shady behavior–was having little resonance as an issue in the minds of voters. Paul offered plenty of examples in his post to counter that argument, and more here on the bipartisan, citizen-driven effort to make the doings of elected government officials more accountable to their bosses (that’s us citizens, by the way).

More evidence continues to pour in. Paul Kiel of this Justin Rood piece on Rep. John Murtha — who, according to this report in the Hill, is lining up support to become majority leader should the Democrats retake the House in November. Rood writes:

If the Dems take control of the House in November, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), now lauded by Democratic activists for his tough stand on Iraq, is poised to retake the helm of an appropriations panel charged with spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense-related projects, which he last chaired in the early 1990s. He may even ascend to be Majority Leader in a Democratically controlled House.

Yet Murtha — who U.S. News and World Report once called “one of Capitol Hill’s most accomplished masters at the art of pork” — presides over a tightly connected network of favored lobbyists, former staffers and major campaign contributors that bears a striking resemblance to those maintained by some of the tarnished Republicans he would likely replace.

Murtha’s office declined my request for comment on this article.

Take Jerry Lewis (R-CA). Under FBI investigation, Lewis — now the chair of the entire Appropriations Committee — until two years ago chaired the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which Murtha is in line to take over.

“They’re very similar,” Melanie Sloan told me. Sloan, head of the D.C.-based watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is a former federal prosecutor. “They’re both using their positions to financially benefit those close to them.” Her self-described “progressive” group is investigating Murtha’s activities, and recently placed him on a short list of “members to watch” for possible corruption.

Murtha won his reputation by setting up a neat, closed circle of largesse, not unlike the one belonging to Lewis.

Both lawmakers have directed millions in government spending to a handful of organizations and individuals who in turn donate to their campaigns, and hire their former aides as lobbyists.

For its part, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington recently published its list of the 20 most ethically challenged members of Congress. I think rankings like these are beside the point (it’s awfully hard to quantify this stuff in any meaningful way), but what’s interesting is the number of members they found, and that they probably could have added quite a few more: it’s surprising that they didn’t include Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey or Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington (see here for a brief summary of questions raised about both lawmakers).

Meanwhile, Liz Mair of GOP Progress is banging away at Sen. Trent Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell over their roles in blocking electronic filing of campaign finance dislcosure reports for Senate candidates (which would tell us who their big donors are sooner, rather than later).

As Glenn Reynolds put it, “the ‘culture of corruption’ is not the culture of a party, but the culture of a political class.” I’d add only that the antidote is an informed and active citizenry, and a healthy dose of sunlight.