REP. JOHN P. MURTHA 1932-2010

John Murtha dies; longtime congressman was master of pork-barrel politics

Pennsylvania congressman John P. Murtha has died after complications from surgery.
By Carol D. Leonnig and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam War veteran who staunchly supported military spending and became a master of pork-barrel politics, died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center. The 19-term lawmaker died from complications of gallbladder surgery. He was 77.

Elected to Congress in 1974 from a southwestern Pennsylvania district that has been economically devastated by the decline of the nation's coal-mining and steel industries, the gruff and jowly Murtha was beloved by his constituents for tapping billions of dollars in federal money to seed new industries there.

He was revered among Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- for his skill in using the power of the federal purse to make kings and deals. A right-hand man of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he was considered one of the most influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill and credited with her ascension.

Critics dubbed Murtha, the chairman of the powerful subcommittee that controls Pentagon spending, the "King of Pork" for the volume of taxpayer money he could direct to the area around his home town of Johnstown. Most of the largess came in defense and military research contracts he steered to companies based in his district or with small offices there.

The former Marine became a mentor to lawmakers trying to learn how to work Washington's power levers but also a symbol of the controversial congressional practice of "earmarking." In that process, lawmakers can add federal money to the budget to give no-bid contracts to pet projects and companies of their choosing. Murtha faced a drumbeat of questions about possible ethical conflicts in his earmarks, as executives and lobbyists for the firms receiving the earmarks were among his most generous campaign contributors.

Murtha was firmly unapologetic, saying it was his duty to help his district create jobs and U.S. troops gain new research and tools to help them in battle. To a television crew following him in a House office building with questions about potential conflicts, he held up his miniature red, page-worn copy of the Constitution.

"What it says is the Congress of the United States appropriates the money," he said. "Got that?"

Volunteered for combat

John Patrick Murtha Jr. was born June 17, 1932, in New Martinsville, W.Va., and raised in Westmoreland County, Pa. He long credited the resilient women in his family, including his mother, with being key to his success. His father, an alcoholic, died early. Murtha said he didn't drink for that reason, and despite the many political fundraisers where a congressman is either honored guest or host, Murtha was known for making an early appearance and an early departure.

He entered the Marine Corps in 1952, during the Korean War period, and served until 1955. He returned to Johnstown to run the family carwash and finish his undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962, and he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. During the Vietnam conflict, he volunteered for combat and served near Da Nang in 1966 and 1967.

In 1955, he married Joyce Bell. She survives, along with their daughter, Donna Murtha; twin sons, Pat Murtha and John M. Murtha; and three grandchildren.

Back from Vietnam, Murtha was recruited by the local Democratic Party to challenge longtime Rep. John P. Saylor (R) and presented himself as hawkish on military affairs. "To me, it is academic whether we should be in Vietnam," the young veteran said at the time. "Our men are fighting their hearts out so we can sit at home and enjoy the luxuries of this great nation. We have to unite."

He lost that race but won election to the Pennsylvania House. When Saylor died in office, Murtha won a special election to the U.S. House in 1974. In a district with a strong conservative tradition, Murtha's victory was taken in part as a rejection of then-President Richard M. Nixon. His slogan: "One honest man can make a difference."

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