Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- With the midnight hour approaching Saturday Aug. 4 near the end of a marathon session, Democratic and Republican leaders alike wanted to pass the Defense appropriations bill quickly and start their summer recess. But Republican Rep. Jeff Flake's stubborn adherence to principle forced an hour-long delay that revealed unpleasant realities about Congress.

Flake insisted on debating the most egregious of the bill's 1,300 earmarks placed in the Defense money bill by individual House members that authorize spending in their districts. Defending every such earmark was the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee: Democratic Rep. John Murtha, unsmiling and unresponsive to questions posed on the House floor by Flake.

Murtha is called "King Corruption" by Republican reformers, but what happened after midnight Aug. 5 is not a party matter. Democrats and Republicans, as always, locked arms supporting every earmark. It makes no difference that at least seven House members are under investigation by the Justice Department. A bipartisan majority insists on sending taxpayers money to companies in their districts without competitive bidding or public review.

Claims of newly established transparency were undermined by the Saturday late night follies. Flake, who ran a Phoenix, Ariz., think tank (the Goldwater Institute) before coming to Congress in 2001, is immensely unpopular on both sides of the aisle for forcing votes on his colleagues' pork. He burnished that reputation by prolonging the marathon Saturday session and challenging selected earmarks.

What ensued showed what a sham are claimed earmark reforms. With debate on each earmark limited to five minutes per pro-and-con and roll calls also pressed into five minutes, the House was mainly interested in finishing up and defeating Flake with huge bipartisan majorities. The mood of annoyance with Flake was personified by the 17-term Murtha, who as subcommittee chairman defended and retained every earmark (including notorious infusions of cash to his Johnstown, Pa., district).

Republican Rep. John Campbell, an Orange County, Calif., auto dealer and five-year California state legislator who is serving his first full year in Congress, is a rare ally of Flake. Campbell began the Saturday debate by challenging a $2 million no-bid award to the Sherwin-Williams paint company for a "paint shield" against "microbial threats." The Pentagon did not want this, but Murtha delivered his usual contemptuous retort: "We don't apologize for [earmarks] because we think the [House] members know as much about what goes on their district as the bureaucrats and the Defense Department."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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