Yesterday marked the passing of one of Washington’s most powerful and controversial legislators, one whose work was familiar to followers of the Center for Public Integrity. Pennsylvania Democrat John P. “Jack” Murtha, chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, died Monday afternoon at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, VA, according to a statement from his congressional office. Murtha was 77.
For 36 years, Murtha had represented Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District, which is centered in Johnstown; just days ago, Murtha became Pennsylvania’s longest serving member of Congress. A biography accompanies the death announcement on his website, listing a host of legislative and policy accomplishments. But Murtha is likely best known to Center readers as the lawmaker who elevated Congressional earmarks to their present-day status as a crucial tool for funneling taxpayer dollars back home.
The biography notes that “with the wide-spread loss of coal and steel jobs that were the lifeblood of the [Johnstown] area, [Murtha] pushed the region in a new direction, intent on diversifying the economy by attracting health care, defense, medical research, tourism and high-tech jobs.” What the biography doesn’t say is that Murtha’s use of earmarks and other forms of congressionally-steered funds lay at the basis of Johnstown’s now decades-long economic stimulus by the federal government. Since 1989, Murtha has been either the chairman or ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, depending on the political fortune of his party, putting him in control of one of the largest spigots of federal money: the defense spending bill.
The millions of dollars directed by Murtha often went to firms that employed former congressional staffers and other insiders as lobbyists; those lobbyists and the firms they represented regularly made campaign contributions to Murtha and other subcommittee members. The ethically dubious relationships have long raised suspicions among government watchdogs, and are believed to be at the center of an FBI investigation into public corruption, though no charges were ever lodged against Murtha. A Center for Public Integrity investigation confirmed that most of the fellow members of Murtha’s subcommittee also directed earmarks towards companies that employed former staffers and made contributions.
Murtha was always unapologetic. He remarked at last year’s Showcase for Commerce in Johnstown, dubbed ‘MurthaFest’ by some, that earmarks “are critical to our economic survival” and rhetorically asked, “I’m supposed to oversee these companies?,” referring to the firms that received earmarks. He answered his own question: “That’s not my job. That’s the Defense Department’s job.” Reporters had asked about Kuchera Defense Systems, a Johnstown-based contractor, that the FBI raided in early 2009; the firm had employed Murtha’s brother Kit as a lobbyist. Kuchera had also donated at least $60,000 to Murtha’s campaign over the years.
Murtha was fond of noting that the U.S. Constitution vests only Congress with the responsibility of funding the government; the powerful ‘cardinals’ in the appropriations committees played an especially large role. Bringing home part of the federal budget pie has long been accepted, even admired in Congress and by constituents.
As a result, the Defense Department and its contractors could not help but notice Murtha. Besides being a widely-respected voice on military affairs — Murtha was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress, and he garnered attention when he opposed the Iraq War in 2005 — he had his hand on the tiller of military spending.
So it’s hardly surprising that Murtha’s passing is being met with a note of sorrow from the defense contracting community. Jim McNerney, the CEO of Boeing, the second largest U.S. defense contractor with a presence in Johnstown, said in a statement, “We at Boeing are deeply saddened to hear today of Rep. John Murtha’s passing. Jack — or Mr. Chairman as I called him — served his country in both war and in peace, earning not only medals for sacrifice and valor but also the respect of his constituents who first elected him to Congress 36 years ago. Our nation has lost a patriot who loved this country and what it stands for, and the people of Pennsylvania have lost a man who cared deeply for those he served.”
Likewise, his death merited attention from the highest levels of the Obama administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates released a statement saying he was “deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Jack Murtha. America has lost a true patriot who served his country faithfully first in uniform as a decorated combat Marine, and then as an elected representative.”
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