The Plank

Murtha's Little Piece Of Pork

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In response to the charge that Jack Murtha threatened to screw over Michigan Republican Mike Rogers for going after a project in his district, my first inclination is to note that this sort of (alleged) payback politics is practiced in virtually every legislative body anywhere.

But the substance of the issue makes this something more than a politicized clash of egos--and at first blush it makes Murtha look pretty bad. The Pennsylvania Democrat is ticked that Rogers was trying to cut off funding for the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), which is located in Murtha's district. When I learned that the White House has been pushing for the NDIC's closure, I wondered whether this was sleazy retaliation for Murtha's vocal anti-war stance. But that doesn't seem to be the case, at least not based on this thorough 2005 US News story:

In the beginning, the Johnstown center did have some friends in the White House. With the blessing of President George Herbert Walker Bush, then drug czar William Bennett proposed the creation of the NDIC in 1990. Its mission: to collect and coordinate intelligence from often-feuding law enforcement agencies in order to provide a strategic look at the war on drugs. But the Drug Enforcement Administration, worried that its pre-eminent role in the drug war was slipping away, openly fought the idea. So did many on Capitol Hill, arguing that the new center would duplicate the efforts of existing intelligence centers, notably the El Paso Intelligence Center, operated by the DEA. With little support in the law enforcement community, the NDIC looked all but dead. Enter Congressman John Murtha. The Pennsylvania Democrat, who chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Defense, tucked the enabling legislation for the center into a Pentagon authorization bill, with the caveat that it would be placed in his district.
The center was troubled from the start. Murtha's new drug agency was funded by the Pentagon, but the Department of Justice was authorized to run it--an arrangement bound to cause problems. "All of us wanted the NDIC," says John Carnevale, a former official with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as the drug czar's office is known. "But none of us wanted it in Johnstown. We viewed it as a jobs program that Mr. Murtha wanted [for his district]."
Murtha bristles at implications that the Johnstown center is a boondoggle.... But "obviously," he says, "I wanted it in my district. I make no apologies for that."
Headquartered in a renovated department store downtown, the center has brought nearly 400 federal jobs to Johnstown, a struggling former steel-mill town. Law enforcement agencies, ordered to send employees to the new center, had trouble finding skilled analysts or executives who would agree to live in Johnstown. Even the bosses didn't want to go. The first director, former FBI official Doug Ball, traveled back and forth from his home near Washington. His deputy, former DEA agent Jim Milford, did the same and made no bones about it. "I've never come to terms," Milford says, "with the justification for the NDIC."
In 1993, when the NDIC officially opened, the congressional General Accounting Office issued a damning report citing duplication among 19 drug intelligence centers that already existed. And many involved in the process said the idea of gathering information from other law enforcement agencies for strategic assessments on drug trafficking just wasn't workable. In some cases, federal law prevented agencies from sharing sensitive intelligence; in others, rival agencies simply refused to give up proprietary information. "The bottom line," Milford said, "was that we had to actually search for a mission."

Things don't seem to have improved from there. If you read the whole story, it's hard to conclude that Murtha is right on the substance here (or that he had the nation's best interests in mind when he first steered NDIC to his district). Of course, defending a wasteful-but-job-producing program in your district is something 434 other members of Congress do all the time. (Okay, maybe not Ron Paul.) But Democrats did promise to "clean up the House"....

--Michael Crowley

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