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Today's Special: Pork. And Tomorrow's.

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

There is an unwritten rule in Congress: Don't touch another man's earmarks.

You support my Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska, I'll support your New York goose-control program. You vote for my North Carolina Teapot Museum, I'll vote for your Seattle sculpture garden. Give me my beach nourishment, you can have your parking garage.

This is how it all works in the Capitol -- which explains why the number of earmarks for pet projects has quintupled in a decade, to about 15,000 a year.

The truly excellent earmarker can make a career of it, as demonstrated by Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), the "cardinal" who presides over the powerful Appropriations defense subcommittee. He secured more than $200 million for his pet projects in the 2006 fiscal year alone, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

For reasons unfathomable to most of his colleagues, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) saw something wrong with this arrangement. So last week, he did something crazy: He tried to take away one of Murtha's earmarks.

The earmark in question was a $23 million gift to the National Drug Intelligence Center, which happens to be in Johnstown, Pa., in Murtha's district. Rogers, a former FBI agent, tried to strike Murtha's money with a "motion to recommit." Naturally, it failed. Murtha kept his earmark -- and Rogers got his ears cuffed.

According to Rogers's account -- which Murtha has not disputed -- the Pennsylvanian approached his colleague on the House floor last Thursday and said, in a loud voice: "I hope you don't have any earmarks in the defense appropriation bill, because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever."

"This is not the way we do things here," the naive man from Michigan responded. "And is that supposed to make me afraid of you?"

Murtha raised his voice further, pointed his finger and told Rogers: "That's the way I do it."

Never mind that Murtha's threat was hollow: By tacit agreement between the parties, Murtha controls only the Democratic earmarks and lets the ranking Republican on the committee, Bill Young of Florida, handle GOP earmarks. A seething Rogers returned to the House floor on Monday night to introduce a resolution declaring Murtha guilty of an ethics violation.

Apparently, the credulous Rogers took seriously the quaint provision in the Code of Official Conduct stating that a member "may not condition the inclusion of language to provide funding for a Congressional earmark . . . on any vote cast by another member." "There's not going to be any more go-along-to-get-along, 1950s-style American politics around here," Rogers told The Post's Jonathan Weisman. "I've had enough."

Maybe Rogers has had enough, but it is the considered sense of the House that the "go-along-to-get-along" method has merit.

Murtha apologized -- not to Rogers, of course, but to fellow Democrats for his indiscretion -- and issued the requisite statement saying that all earmark requests would receive "careful consideration" (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told ABC News that "Congressman Murtha enjoys an excellent reputation in the Congress on both sides of the aisle." And his reputation is even more excellent back in Pennsylvania, where he casts earmarks every which way, whether it's a hospital in Connellsville, which got $500,000 for post-traumatic stress research, or Penn State University, which got $3 million for work on an anti-torpedo torpedo.

Even Republican leaders were hesitant to draw attention to Murtha's earmark troubles. There are, after all, at least five House Republicans under federal investigation for abusing earmarks. And former Republican members Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Bob Ney are serving prison time because of their own pet projects.

Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio could have forced immediate consideration of a reprimand of Murtha by introducing it himself. But, while nominally supporting the resolution, he let Rogers introduce it, which allowed Democrats on Monday night to postpone its consideration.

Rogers's moment arrived at 5 p.m. yesterday, when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) moved to table the anti-Murtha resolution the moment the clerk finished reading it. Republicans erupted in jeers and shouts of "Debate!" Murtha, in his usual seat in the back corner of the chamber, enjoyed a chuckle and accepted handshakes from well-wishers as they left the chamber.

To nobody's surprise, the House voted to table Rogers's resolution, 219 to 189. Only two Democrats dared to jeopardize their earmarks by voting against Murtha: Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. Only one Republican took Murtha's side in the dispute -- Tim Murphy, whose Pennsylvania district is uncomfortably near Murtha's.

"It's unfortunately what I expected," the vanquished Rogers said in the Speaker's Lobby after the vote. "It's no wonder Americans hold us in such low regard."

Then he let slip that he has "four or five" earmark requests pending before Murtha's subcommittee. Are those earmarks gone, now and forever? Rogers smiled. "Forever's a long time," he said.

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