Rogers, Murtha to Battle Over Alleged Earmarks Threat

Posted May 18, 2007 at 6:47pm

The House floor will be the stage for a partisan fight over earmarks and ethics today, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is scheduled to drop a privileged motion to trigger a House vote on whether to reprimand senior Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for allegedly threatening to deny Rogers’ earmarks for “now and forever.”

The Michigan lawmaker said last week that Murtha had vowed to cut his earmarks in retaliation for Rogers’ attempt to strip a Murtha project from the intelligence authorization bill the week before. Murtha has declined to offer his version of events.

Once Rogers offers the resolution, Democrats have four procedural options. The most likely, aides said, is a motion to table the resolution that effectively kills the bill. They also can debate the resolution and then vote to table it, refer it to the ethics committee or allow an up-or-down vote.

The rare procedural move by Rogers will test the application of a new restriction included in the House rules package written by Democrats when they took control of the House in January. Scant attention has been paid to the two-line rule, included in the code of conduct provisions, which states that no Member can condition the use of earmarks “on any vote cast by another Member.”

The rule was included to make good on the Democrats’ campaign pledge to make this the “most honest, ethical and open Congress in history.” More specifically, it was a provision adopted in response to long-standing Democratic criticisms that Republicans regularly used earmarks to inappropriately build support for legislation, and to punish lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who refused to toe the line.

Manipulating earmarks to discipline lawmakers has become an increasingly maligned, but not uncommon, practice in the House. Recent public accounts include a decision in October 2003 by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), an Appropriations cardinal, to strip $1 billion in Democrats’ earmarks from the fiscal 2004 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies bill after Democrats voted against the measure on the floor. There has been an unwritten code on the Appropriations Committee that a Member can only reap the benefits of earmarks if they support the bill on final passage.

In 2004, then-Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) stripped $14 million in project requests from Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) in the massive highway bill after she criticized his proposal for a gas tax hike to help pay for the bill. Under pressure from Republican leaders, Young reinserted the projects through a manager’s amendment.

In 2005, then-Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), a cardinal, removed without warning the earmarks of 21 lawmakers included in the omnibus spending bill because he disapproved of their support for AMTRAK funding increases above the Bush administration’s request.

Even more common, but less easy to track, is leaders and appropriators quietly inserting and stripping earmarks from spending bills to enforce discipline — a practice regularly used by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Former aides recalled DeLay would strip earmark requests by then-Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who consistently fought his own party on veterans’ funding issues. Smith ultimately lost his gavel as well.

“We did retribution regularly. We just didn’t talk about it,” said one knowledgeable Republican source.

Murtha not only talked, he yelled. According to Rogers, Murtha was angry over his sponsorship of a motion to recommit on the intelligence authorization bill two weeks ago.

Republicans protested the inclusion of earmarks dropped into the bill and, in particular, one by Murtha that funds a pet project in his Pennsylvania district.

Rogers’ motion would have diverted funds from the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., to other intelligence interests, essentially gutting Murtha’s project.

On Thursday, Murtha approached Rogers on the floor and allegedly threatened to retaliate.

“I hope you don’t have any earmarks in the appropriations bills because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever,” Murtha said, according to Rogers.

“This is not the way we do things here, and is that supposed to make me afraid of you?” Rogers said.

“That’s the way I do it,” Murtha replied.

Murtha is the second-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and wields tremendous power in doling out federal dollars. Despite being a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he has not been supportive of the ethics and lobbying reform proposals supported by most of his colleagues.

In his failed bid for Majority Leader, Murtha described the ethics package as “total crap” in a private meeting with lawmakers, and was one of only four Democrats to vote against a reform bill in 2006 when Republicans still controlled the chamber.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was lukewarm to his colleagues’ suggestions of calling for a privileged motion earlier this month after Murtha issued a similar tirade against Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), also an appropriator, when Tiahrt voted against the NDIC in committee.

Murtha approached Tiahrt on the floor and began yelling and pointing at him. The moment was captured on C-SPAN during a House vote, although sound is not available. It also appears that Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.) attempted to intervene. Dicks is the third-ranking Democrat on Appropriations.

Sources said Boehner has been reluctant to make an issue of ethics on the floor, particularly against a senior Member like Murtha, but the Rogers episode was enough for Boehner to strongly back Rogers and the resolution.

“This egregious action is not only beneath the dignity of this institution, it constitutes a violation of House rules, which preclude Members from conditioning earmarks on another Member’s vote, and the House should reprimand Murtha for his conduct,” Boehner said in a statement.

Rogers, a military veteran and former FBI agent, said in an interview that Murtha’s actions were “cajoling, bullying, threatening intimidation” and they crossed a line.

The Michigan lawmaker said he would not file a formal ethics complaint — although it is possible the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct could decide on its own to examine the matter — but wanted to use the resolution to make a statement on improving the culture in the House. “I hope this serves as a changing event for how this place operates,” he said, noting that he has no prior animosity with Murtha. “That’s the longest conversation I’ve ever had with him.”

A former House GOP aide familiar with the ethics process noted that such resolutions are not common practice and that leaders on both sides of the aisle are hesitant to allow such moves unless a Member truly believes a violation has been made.

“Appropriators have tremendous power. They have to be careful about how they conduct themselves,” the aide said, “The ethics on earmarks have changed.”

Rogers said there were “multiple” Member witnesses to Murtha’s outburst, but he declined to name them. Sources said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) was one of the Members present.

Murtha offered nothing to counter Rogers’ account last week, issuing a brief statement that the Appropriations Committee fairly reviews all earmark requests.

The event puts Pelosi in a delicate political position between defending one of her closest friends and political allies, and saving face in light of campaign promises to change the culture in the House. Pelosi’s office offered no comment as of press time Friday.