John Murtha dies at 77

Rep. John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who became one of the most powerful members of the House serving four decades representing western Pennsylvania, has died at 77. 

Murtha was the longest serving member of the Pennsylvania delegation — a milestone he passed just this past Saturday. He had been hospitalized in recent weeks with a gall bladder infection and died Monday afternoon at Virginia Hospital Center at 1:18 p.m., his office said in a statement. 

Murtha was chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, and from that perch he controlled billions in Pentagon spending and was one of the most respected voices on military policy. Murtha was well liked on both sides of the aisle, often holding court in the back of the House chamber in what was known as “Murtha’s Corner.” 

Critics derided Murtha as an unreformed pork barrel spender, and Murtha was unapologetic about steering federal money to his home district, a region of Pennsylvania hard hit by the loss of coal and steel jobs through the 1970s and ’80s. 

He was very close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), both having served on the Appropriations Committee. Pelosi supported Murtha for majority leader in 2006 over Steny Hoyer of Maryland, but Hoyer prevailed. 

Murtha made a national name for himself in 2005 by becoming one of the more hawkish members of the Democratic caucus to revoke his support of the Iraq war, which he had voted for in 2002. It was Murtha’s change of heart that inspired many Democrats to follow, marking a turning point in public support for the Iraq war. 

Murtha was well known for steering millions in earmarks back to his economically depressed district, which included Johnstown, Pa., but in recent years he had come under intense scrutiny for connections between campaign donors and earmarks for projects. He was ensnared in the Abscam scandal in 1980 but he was cleared of wrongdoing as an unindicted co-conspirator. 

More recently, Murtha came under scrutiny for his connections to the PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying shop that was founded by a former Appropriations Committee staffer and specialized in getting earmarks for clients — many of them back in Murtha’s home district. 

Murtha rejected any notion that he had a conflict of interest with his earmarks. In fact, in his official biography on his Web site, Murtha defended his efforts to steer money and jobs back home. 

“Congressman Murtha has worked hard to bring tens of thousands of family-sustaining jobs to western Pennsylvania,” the biography said. “With the widespread loss of coal and steel jobs that were the lifeblood of the area, he pushed the region in a new direction, intent on diversifying the economy by attracting health care, defense, medical research, tourism and high-tech jobs that would insulate the region from future shocks.” 

Murtha was born in New Martinsville, W.Va., in 1932, and grew up just east of Pittsburgh. We was an Eagle Scout who joined the Marines in 1952, then rejoined the service to serve in Vietnam. 

Murtha was the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress, in 1974.

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