"If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district."
-Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)
Quoted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 29, 2009
Corruption: I'm sick of it, and I think the nation is too. Ever since we threw out the Republicans in 2006 for Abramoff and the so-called culture of corruption, we've seen far too many questionable ethical decisions on both sides of the aisle. John Murtha, a senior Democrat representing a swath of southwestern Pennsylvania, is a prime example. Known for directing earmarks to companies and institutions run by family members, his questionable ethics are public knowledge to the extent that he doesn't even bother trying to cover them up.
Today, the New York Times reports that his nephew, Col. Brian Murtha, has been made a lobbyist for the Marine corps. For me, this raises two questions: Is nepotism this blatant even legal? And why does the Marine Corps need lobbyists in the first place?
The answer to the first question is an unequivocal "yes." The Times article details Murtha's scurrilous history of awarding contracts to institutions that employ his family members. But he is high in House leadership, and neither party has actually expelled any of its own members for corruption.
You know your bureaucracy is too big when it has to spend millions of dollars lobbying itself to get stuff done. This leads to the meta-question: Why does the military even need lobbyists in the first place? In Obama's new budget, the Department of Defense gets 533.7 billion for 2010, not counting an extra 200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military isn't exactly strapped for cash, but it's their money (we gave it to them, after all), and they can choose how they want to spend it. Even still, I have some better ideas for how the military can spend its extra cash. These include fighting terrorism, finding bin Laden, buying the troops some new and better body armor, and re-hiring the Arabic translators who were fired because they were gay and putting them to work translating Al Qaeda documents.
On principle, I resist the temptation to join the chorus against government bureaucracy. This is mainly because I understand that our government provides crucial social services even though it may be bloated with bureaucracy. No government can operate with perfect efficiency, and it's ridiculous to insist that such a large institution run with no wasted dollars. But when economic times get tough, you have to stop playing the devil's advocate and look for any corners you can cut without diminishing your returns of social services.
Murtha is a crook, and if the House Democrats were really serious about fighting corruption, they would have expelled him from the caucus when the first definitive corruption stories broke. The fact that he is continuing to use his position to benefit family is disgraceful, but more disgraceful is that he is getting away with it.
A congressman was once quoted as saying about the budget, "A billion here, a billion there, and sooner or later it adds up to real money." In the end, Murtha himself is not doing major damage to the country. He's not killing people or making billions of dollars disappear. But he is a symbol of the greed and waste of the old boy's network Washington that Obama promised to take down. And for the millions at risk in this recession who are relying on Washington to provide honest leadership and meaningful services, a symbol is a powerful thing indeed.