Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), the first veteran of the Vietnam war to be elected to the House and one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress, died Monday afternoon at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, VA, after complications from gallbladder surgery. Murtha was 77.
A native of New Martinsville, WV, voters elected first elected Murtha to Congress in a 1974 special election that spelled impending doom for President Nixon and Congressional Republicans. That fall, Democrats wrestled away 49 House seats from the GOP, reeling from the scourge of Watergate and a presidency in shambles.
Murtha rose to become the chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that controls spending for the Pentagon. Chairs of the appropriations subcommittee panels are viewed with such prestige on Capitol Hill that they’re called “cardinals.” That’s a nod to Rome because of the eminence these lawmakers hold over spending for their federal fiefdom.
Murtha was also the endorsed candidate of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to become majority leader when Democrats won control of Congress in 2006. But current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) overwhelmingly defeated Murtha by secret ballot in a hard-fought leadership contest.
Murtha enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1952 and became a drill instructor at Parris Island. He served in Korea and received a Bronze Star and Two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam. He continued to be a member of the Marine Corps Reserves until he resigned as a colonel in 1990.
Murtha voted to go to war in Iraq the fall of 2002. But two years later, the Pennsylvania Democrat called for the U.S to withdraw from. Later on the House floor, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), the newest member of the House at the time, spoke in favor of the war and chided Murtha that “cowards cut and run, Marines never do.” Schmidt’s remarks ignited a firestorm on the House floor as lawmakers rose to Murtha’s defense. Schmidt later said she didn’t know that Murtha was a Marine. She withdrew her comments and apologized.
A hint of scandal lingered over much of Murtha’s career. The FBI named Murtha an “unindicted co-conspirator” in its ABSCAM sting operation in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. ABSCAM resulted in the conviction of six House members and one senator. The FBI recorded Murtha on videotape declining a $50,000 bribe from federal agents posing as Arab sheiks. But the Congressman did say he could be interested in future dealings.
Nicknamed “The King of Pork,” Murtha also faced scrutiny for earmarking federal dollars for projects in his district. Numerous news reports lambasted the Congressman for steering money to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport. The facility received $150 million from Washington for upgrades despite limited commercial use. But the airport is also used for military purposes.
The Congressman also faced scrutiny for campaign contributions he and other appropriators received from the now defunct PMA lobbying firm. Murtha scored nearly $2.5 million in donations from PMA and its clients over a nearly 20 year period. The feds continue to scrutinize PMA. The Office of Congressional Ethics asked the House Ethics Committee to drop any inquiries into the dealings Murtha had with PMA.
Murtha also stirred controversy in the fall of 2008 with President Obama poised to become the first African American president. When asked about Mr. Obama’s chances in his Congressional district, Murtha responded that “there’s no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area.”
Even though Murtha won re-election, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) carried the district over by about 1,000 votes.
Despite controversy, Murtha was beloved by his House colleagues for holding court in what’s called “Murtha’s corner” in the rear of the House chamber. During a House vote series, Murtha could often be seen trading information or spinning yarns with fellow lawmakers. He also won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and Pennsylvania's two highest honors, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.