John Murtha: Deal-making Democrat who championed military spending

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Murtha liked to say the middle initial P. in his name stood for "power". And he wasn't joking. During a career of more than three decades on Capitol Hill, the former Marine and Vietnam war veteran was indeed one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives – an old style deal-maker who was a champion of military spending, a disproportionate amount of which he channelled to his rustbelt district in south western Pennsylvania.

By a politician's standard, the gruff and growly Murtha was a man of few words. But his constituents revered him, for his success in steering federal dollars in their direction, even as he was assailed by critics who dubbed him the "King of Pork" for his ruthless and unapologetic mastery of the Congressional pork barrel process.

Ultimately his influence derived from his military background and connections. Having left college early to join the Marines in 1952 during the Korean War, Murtha re-enlisted a decade later to fight in Vietnam, where he was wounded and decorated for gallantry. That record was particularly important to his party when it regularly came under attack from Republicans for being weak on national security and defence. No one could say that about the hawkish John Murtha.

For that reason, his change of mind on Iraq sent tremors through Washington that reached into the White House of George W. Bush. Murtha had voted for the war in 2002, but in November 2005 condemned it as "a badly flawed policy wrapped in illusion," and called for the withdrawal of troops. The speech helped harden public opposition to the war, and almost certainly hastened the drawdown of US forces now in progress.

Murtha was first elected to Congress in a special election in February 1974, as the Watergate crisis was nearing its climax. He campaigned with the slogan "One Honest Man Can Make a Difference", and his victory in a traditionally conservative district was widely seen as a popular repudiation of Richard Nixon, who resigned six months later.

Thereafter however, it would be Murtha's own honesty that would on occasion be called into question. He was unrepentant in his pursuit of pork, once saying that "I know better than those damn people in the White House what needs to be done in my district." To those who complained about money wasted, he would brandish a copy of the Constitution. "What it says is that the Congress of the United States appropriates the money. Got that?"

And so the pork continued to flow, underpinned by a network of lobbyists and defence contractors – to projects like the John Murtha airport just outside his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, built at a cost of over $200m of taxpayers' money, but which operates just two flights a day and is mostly deserted. Year after year, as chairman or ranking minority member of the Defense Appropriations sub-committee of the House, Murtha managed to secure more federal money for his district than any other Congressman.

Other involvements were even more questionable. In the first of several ethics controversies, Murtha came close to disaster in the Abscam kickbacks scandal that brought down one Senator and several Congressmen. In 2008 and 2009 he came under renewed investigation for his ties with lobbyists. "If I'm corrupt," he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "It's because I take care of my district." Once again, no charges were brought.

None the less, the odour of malpractice cost Murtha further advancement. A longstanding and strong supporter of Nancy Pelosi, he led her successful campaign to become speaker in 2006. But despite Pelosi's explicit backing, he was defeated in his bid to become House Majority leader, the second-ranking post in the House. If Congress was serious about clamping down on lobbyists and influence-peddling, Democrats concluded, the promotion of John Murtha was not the way to go.

Rupert Cornwell

John Patrick Murtha, politician: born New Martinsville, West Virginia 17 June 1932; Member, US House of Representatives, 1974-; married 1955 Joyce Bell (one daughter, two sons); died Arlington, Virginia 8 February 2010.