While the post-election shoving and shuffling on Capitol Hill sounds dull, parochial and petty to the rest of the world, the choices that politicians make among themselves can be telling. Whether the Democrats elect John Murtha or Steny Hoyer this week to serve as majority leader — second in command to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is unlikely to depend upon their ideological leanings. Decided by secret ballot, this election measures respect, popularity, style and favors owed.

By siding openly with her friend and ally Murtha in a letter to her colleagues, however, Pelosi has ensured that the outcome will render an instant judgment on her authority in her new role. She has sent a clear signal that she values loyalty most — and that she is willing to risk embarrassment to enforce discipline. For Democrats who have too often failed to act with any semblance of cohesion, her approach is refreshingly tough and free of timidity.

But as a national leader who vowed to clean up Washington’s dirty politics during the 2006 campaign, she may yet come to regret her Murtha endorsement. After promising to “drain the swamp,” she immediately adopted one of the swamp’s hungriest alligators as her pet.

Until he won deserved gratitude last year by speaking out against the war, Murtha was best known as an old-fashioned dealmaker who specialized in trading votes for pork projects, and a reliable advocate of Pentagon extravagance. Conservative on social issues but sympathetic to labor, he was the kind of Democrat who often did business with Republicans when that served his narrow interests. More than once, his backroom maneuvering has raised ethical questions.

During the Abscam investigation, he was caught on tape discussing investments and favors with an FBI informant. The corrupt congressional pals who introduced him to the phony Abscam sheik went to prison. Although he was never indicted, his presence in this seedy scenario was not reassuring.

That incident, which occurred more than two decades ago, never troubled his conservative critics until he spoke out against the war. But more recently, he has profited from the rotten system that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars in defense “earmarks” sought by lobbyists, whose clients then make enormous campaign contributions to the appropriators. According to the New York Times, he assisted the old Republican leadership in defeating Democratic initiatives in exchange for earmarks for his district and his state.

He has also regularly opposed lobbying and ethical reforms, and even helped to kill Democratic efforts to investigate contracting abuses in Iraq. The public-interest monitors at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, whose previous targets have included former Reps. Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham, have denounced Murtha as “one of the most unethical members of Congress.”

If he has not quite escaped the capital’s “culture of corruption,” his rival isn’t exactly a paragon of purity either. Hoyer is younger and slicker than Murtha, but he is equally receptive to the lobbying industry. Indeed, he has boasted of his role in creating a Democratic version of the K Street Project set up by Republican leaders to institutionalize their relationship with corporate lobbyists. The usual description of Hoyer as “friendly to business” is a polite understatement. But nobody has accused him of unethical conduct, and he has won the support of such rigorous reformers as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)

It is unfortunate that the race between Murtha and Hoyer quickly became nasty, with accusations exchanged via leak and press release. Open warfare between her aspiring deputies doesn’t represent the orderly, purposeful image that the future speaker prizes so highly, nor does it advance the objectives she set out for the first days of the incoming Congress. While competition was unavoidable, Pelosi might well have tried to constrain her colleagues from acting out their animosity so loudly.

It is also unfortunate that the leadership election is turning into a symbolic vote on the issue of Iraq. There was no need to test the party’s fragile unity on that paramount issue before the new Congress is sworn in.

Even worse is the appearance of business as usual, after an election in which millions of citizens demanded change. As Pelosi takes up her constitutional responsibilities, she will hear many people say that she is no different from her tainted predecessors, that all politicians are crooked and that Democrats are just as compromised as Republicans. Her most important responsibility is to prove those cliches untrue.

If she fails to deliver reform, her historic reign will be disappointing — and possibly quite brief.

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