Rep. John Murtha: lifelong hawk, military backer, brazen earmarker

Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who died Monday, was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress. He also brought home billions in defense-related earmarks for his struggling district.

By , Staff writer

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    In this April 16, 2008 file photo shows Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) speaking in Washington. Murtha who died Monday after surgery, was best known for the billions of dollars he secured for his district behind closed doors.
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Until his public break with the Bush administration over the war in Iraq on Nov. 17, 2005, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who died Monday after surgery, was best known for the billions of dollars he secured for his district behind closed doors.

Abandoned by coal and steel factories, Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District owed its billions in defense contracts and infrastructure to the persistence and clout of its 19-term representative, who last month became the state's longest-serving House member of all time.

A protégé of legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill and, more recently, a confidant of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Murtha swayed the lion’s share of member projects in any budget year from a perch on top of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Regardless of which party was in control of Congress, Murtha had a hand in overseeing the defense budget and distributing its member-projects, or earmarks. There’s even an area of the House floor dubbed “Murtha’s Corner,” for its traffic in earmarks.

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His zeal in winning projects for his district brought him to the edge of scandal and frequent ethics investigations. Last month, he was cleared by the Office of Congressional Ethics of charges that he had accepted campaign contributions from PMA Group, a former top defense lobbying firm, in exchange for funding for earmarked projects.

Murtha brushed off the criticism, especially that from those who had never visited his district nor seen the economic devastation there.

“Jack Murtha was a man who thought representing his constituents was the most important thing in his public service,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “He could care less what people said about pork barrel or earmarks or wasting. He felt that the primary goal of his service was to the 12th District and for that he had their undying affection.”

The first Vietnam combat veteran elected to Congress, Murtha was also focused on support of US military forces, especially in combat.

“Ever since I was a young boy, I had two goals in life – I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress,” he wrote in his 2006 memoir “From Vietnam to 9/11.”

A lifelong hawk and an early supporter of the war in Iraq, Murtha led Democrats in pushing for sufficient support for the troops, including adequately armored vehicles. His break with President Bush over the war in Iraq in late 2005 gave a significant boost to the antiwar movement both on and off Capitol Hill.

“Jack was a devoted husband, a loving father and a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years,” said President Obama in a statement honoring Murtha.

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