This morning, I called Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, to ask about the potential congressional reforms House Speaker-To-Be Nancy Pelosi is expected to push on Day One. But before we got to that, Sloan teed off on Pelosi for having endorsed Representative Jack Murtha, the hawk turned Iraq war critic, in his fight against Representative Steny Hoyer to be the House Democratic majority leader, the powerful number-two job in the body. “Murtha has lots of ethics issues,” Sloan exclaimed. “What the hell is she thinking? Corruption turns out to be a major issue in the campaign, and you endorse the guy with the more ethics problems?”

Sloan was referring to exit polls that noted that 42 percent of voters considered corruption and congressional scandals critical to their voting decisions. And she pointed to her outfit’s Beyond DeLay site that lists the “20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress.” Murtha was not on that roster, but he garnered one of five “Dishonorable Mentions” (along with Republican Representatives Dennis Hastert, the outgoing speaker, J.D. Hayworth, who was defeated in Arizona last week, and Don Sherwood, who was accused by his mistress of choking her and who also lost his bid for reelection).

CREW’s low-down on Murtha charges that he abused his position as the senior member of the defense appropriations subcommittee to steer contracts to military firms represented by his brother, a registered lobbyist. The report also notes that Murtha routinely inserted funding earmarks into defense spending bills for contractors that funded his campaigns and hired a lobbying firm run by a former aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Murtha, according to Sloan, was also instrumental in undermining the House ethics committee. In the late 1990s, he successfully pushed (with other legislators) to change the committee’s rules to prevent it from accepting ethics complaints from parties outside Congress. He also pressed Democratic leaders to name Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia the senior Democrat of the ethics committee. Mollohan has had his own ethics troubles–which have forced him off the ethics committee–and is a member of CREW’s Top (or Bottom) 20. (See here.) “Murtha really doesn’t like the ethics committee,” says Sloan, speculating this may be due to Murtha’s involvement in the Abscam bribery scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The ethics committee chose not to file charges against Murtha, after which the panel’s special counsel resigned in protest.) “Murtha seems like a bad choice from our perspective,” Sloan said.

The fight to be Pelosi’s No. 2 has its odd dynamics. Hoyer is regarded as a centrist sort of Democrat. He’s no virgin when it comes to the institutional corruptions of House, readily hitting up corporate interests for campaign cash. But Hoyer has not been accused of ethical violations. Though Murtha advocates a get-out-of-Iraq-now position, he is a hawkish conservative who has attacked Hoyer for being too liberal.

By publicly endorsing Murtha–who has voted more with the Republicans than almost every other House Democrat–Pelosi has backed the fellow who has been less loyal to the party, who has engaged in liberal-baiting, and who is widely considered to be the underdog in the race. Murtha is indeed the Democrats’ leading critic of the war, and he and Pelosi, another war opponent, have found themselves in the same foxhole. (Hoyer, like Murtha, voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, but he has not turned on the war and has criticized Democratic calls for withdrawal.) Perhaps Pelosi figured that with the Iraq war likely to be the major source of dispute between her and the White House (and congressional Republicans), she needed an antiwar hawk right by her side. But much of this present tussle might be more personal than policy. Pelosi and Hoyer have long been rivals; she defeated Hoyer to become the Democratic minority leader.

In the Murtha-Hoyer face-off, is the choice ethics versus opposition to the war? Conservative versus centrist? A Pelosi ally versus a Pelosi rival? Whatever it is, siding publicly with Murtha is risky for Pelosi. Should Murtha lose, Pelosi will look like a weak leader–at the start. This is a contest between two imperfect candidates, each carrying different baggage. It might have been wise for her to duck.


DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.