Rep. John Murtha (D), who died Monday at 77, leaves behind a record as the longest-serving Congressman in Pennsylvania history, a key ally of the first female Speaker of the House, and as a Member whose appropriations efforts earned both praise and intense scrutiny.
Murtha served on the House Appropriations Committee since shortly after his 1974 arrival in Congress and developed a reputation as a tireless promoter of his Congressional district, using earmarks to direct millions of dollars of federal money there every year. After the steel industry in his western Pennsylvania district essentially died out in the 1970s, Murtha used his appropriations pen to create a defense industry economy in the area, with an unlikely hub in Johnstown, Pa., despite the fact that the city sits an hour from the nearest interstate.
Those earmarks helped rebuild the district but ultimately embroiled Murtha in ethics controversies that spanned decades.
In 1980, undercover FBI agents attempted to bribe Murtha and other Members of Congress in an investigation known as ABSCAM. In a videotaped encounter, Murtha turned down a $50,000 bribe offered by an agent posing as a Saudi sheik but implied he might be interested in the future. He later served as a witness against other Members who were convicted of corruption.
Murtha was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.
Twenty-five years later, Murtha became the center of controversy after the PMA Group lobbying firm was raided by the FBI. PMA had been founded by a former Appropriations Committee staffer with close ties to Murtha, and the firm specialized in getting appropriations earmarks for clients from Murtha’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. The firm and its clients also provided Murtha with millions of dollars’ worth of campaign contributions. The FBI raided the firm in 2008 apparently as part of an investigation of the connections between campaign donations and earmarks.
The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated PMA’s ties to seven members of the subcommittee, voting at the end of 2009 to recommend that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct dismiss any further investigation of Murtha and four others.
In 2005, after decades of work behind the scenes, Murtha became a household name when he publicly recanted his 2002 vote in favor of war in Iraq. He cited inadequate equipment for U.S. troops and low morale and called for the withdrawal of American soldiers. He clashed with other veterans and threatened to shut off funding for the war from his Appropriations Committee post.
Murtha was known on the Hill for running Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) leadership campaigns. Following the Iraq-related publicity, he tried to translate his newfound stature to a higher post, with Pelosi’s blessing. In a high-profile race, he ran for Majority Leader but lost to Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer (D).
Throughout his lengthy tenure, Murtha invested his time in defense appropriations and in projects for his Pennsylvania district. He joined the Appropriations Committee in 1975 not long after he was elected and rose to chair the Subcommittee on Defense, a position he held again at the time of his death.
Among the projects he funded was the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, located in his hometown. With his district in mind, Murtha was active on issues related to mining and manufacturing, co-founding the Congressional Steel Caucus in 1979. He also co-authored a law that would require prosecutors to abide by ethics rules in the jurisdictions where they work, and he served on multiple teams monitoring elections abroad.
Murtha also served as a member of the House ethics committee from 1979 to 1981.
Murtha, a Marine, served in the Korean War and later volunteered for Vietnam. He earned several honors in Vietnam, including two Purple Hearts, the Vietnam Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Medal, awarded when he left the Reserves in 1990. Those experiences informed his decisions in Congress and were central to his 2003 autobiography, “From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security.”
In 1968, after he returned from Vietnam, Murtha lost his first run for the House but then won a seat in the state House. Then in a special election on Feb. 5, 1974, Murtha became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, replacing Rep. John Saylor (R), who died in office. (Saylor, a World War II veteran, served 12 full terms and also replaced a veteran who died in office.) In the 18 elections since, he won fairly easily, despite the nearly even partisan split of his district. In 2008, he beat Republican William Russell with a relatively small 58 percent. In 2002, redistricting forced Murtha to run against another incumbent, Rep. Frank Mascara (D-Pa.), but Murtha won handily.
Murtha was born in New Martinsville, W.Va., on June 17, 1932, and moved to Pennsylvania with his family when he was young. He leaves behind his wife, Joyce, three children and three grandchildren.