Monday, February 8, 2010

Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania Dead at 77

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha, 77, has died after complications from gallbladder surgery. The Vietnam War veteran was one of the most powerful congressmen on Capitol Hill and a strong opponent of the war in Iraq.

Chad Pergram of FOX News reports:

A native of New Martinsville, W.Va., 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 five 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.

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