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Saturn Smith
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FEBRUARY 8, 2010 6:11PM

RIP John Murtha: American corruption at its finest

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Rep. John Murtha, as of Saturday the longest serving House member from Pennsylvania, has died at age 77 from complications after gall bladder surgery. Murtha, a Democrat, represented Pennsylvania's 12th District and had served in Congress since 1975.

No one who's won the ribbon of Longest Serving House Member could have a career without dark spots. Yet John Murtha's bad times have mostly been recent; his worst acts are freshest in the minds of voters and political pundits. It seems unlikely that the House's longest-serving member can expect much of a warm tribute, and I, too, come to bury Murtha, not to praise him. But it's important to look at the system that he operated in, because John Murtha's corruption was a direct cause and effect of his other major achievement: exceptional longevity in the House.

John Murtha was corrupt in a completely, traditionally American way. He looked out for himself and for his district. As the chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations committee, Murtha has sent millions of dollars in so-called pork barrel projects back to Pennsylvania and been embroiled in countless ethical scandals. The 2008 Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington report named Murtha number 11 on its top-fiteen corrupt politicians list (he's still there right now), and wrote that Murtha possibly accepted bribes and illegal gratituities and was possibly guilty of "Honest Services Fraud." Most of these charges stem from his dealings with PMA Group, a defense lobbying firm run by a former Murtha aide. Groups represented by PMA got millions in defense contracts and appropriations written into bills by Murtha himself; in return, Murtha got millions in contributions from those clients.

Is that corruption? Probably so. Murtha took campaign money and turned it into government grants. The message his aide, PMA chief Paul Maggliochetti, must have learned at the boss's side wasn't that money talks -- it's that money writes, in D.C. It writes checks and your company's name into the massive, unchecked defense spending bill that seems to remain untouched, year after year after year.

John Murtha symbolizes this corruption, because he was the reigning champion -- but not because he's unique. In fact, if the Murtha legacy offers any wisdom to those who might want to make a life out of public service, it's that bending to the will of the monied and powerful is only half of the path to power. The other half is making certain that those same monied, powerful interests make certain to land their plants squarely in your district. Murtha's district has an impressive record of defense technology. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both have offices in Murtha's hometown; Murtha joined in on the announcement of the NG opening in 2005.

Why does a town of 24,000 people, an hour's drive from Pittsburg, rate an office for one of the nation's largest defense contractors? Because John Murtha brought home the bacon. This is what gets you re-elected, by the way. Not a vote on a jobs bill or a basket full of good ideas. In the American heartland -- which central Pennsylvania, despite its north-easterly appearance, is squarely a part of -- results will get voters to the booth. So results -- through any means necessary -- were what John Murtha produced.

And he was aware of it. Murtha exploited the system at full speed and with no regrets. In an article from last year in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his constituents were reverent, and Murtha was absolutely unapologetic:

"If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district," Mr. Murtha said. "My job as a member of Congress is to make sure that we take care of what we see is necessary. Not the bureaucrats who are unelected over there in whatever White House, whether it's Republican or Democrat. Those bureaucrats would like to control everything. Every president would like to have all the power and not have Congress change anything. But we're closest to the people."

Murtha only crossed one line his district wasn't happy about, and that wasn't an ethical line. In late 2008, Murtha described Western Pennsylvania as racist. He later walked that back -- somewhat unsuccessfully -- to explain that what he meant was that the redneck roots of Western PA might mean some folks wouldn't be comfortable with voting for an African-American candidate for president. That brought up some ugly responses from said Redneck locals -- but didn't stop Murtha from winning re-election, 58 percent to 42 percent, in a district that ultimately went to John McCain.

Murtha was a man of conflicts, constantly beset by ethical lapses and charges of wrongful defense spending, yet able to make principled stand against the war in Iraq. He was corrupt but somehow beneficient. He was a truly American example of politics, the good, bad, and ugly all wrapped into one. I don't think this is laudable, but I think it's notable.

As a voter in one of the 434 districts John Murtha didn't represent, I can't say I'll miss him, but I bet the feeling on the ground in Johnstown is pretty grim right now. That's got to be part of his legacy, too.

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Glad to see your take on this, Saturn. I was hoping someone would cover Murtha's death. He certainly figured prominently enough in the 2008 election cycle with Obama and Clinton jockeying for Pennsylvania.
Yeah, he was a strange mix of a behind-closed-doors player and someone who's very obvious with his every move.
That "corruption" is inevitable in the legislative process, although, it also means power gravitates to the Executive, but good reporting on the details of what politics looks like: sausage making, which isn't pretty,.,
Yeah. I tried to not start burping, coughing, hick-snout-hoofs, and I wanted to respect.
What phony cats.
Wastrel whores.
hang @ urinals.
Tell he truths.
Great reads.
RIP. a life.
Bonnie, I totally agree that it was to the detriment of the rest of us. But that's somehow allowed and encouraged in the American system. Bizarro.
With all his warts, it should be acknowledged that by 2005 Murtha was taking a fairly oppositional approach to our presence in Iraq.

Furthermore, it always astounded me, riding the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to see the astoundingly large number of Ku Klux Klan signs perched above the hills.

rated for equanimity
I couldn't believe the news. Odd guy, but great to (and for) his constituents...
I like your use of the word possibly. "He was the most corrupt individual in Washington, possibly." You really are coming along in the world of journalism and have that ass covering down to an art form.
The "possibly" you're talking about, OcularN, isn't mine, but from the CREW folks. Since he wasn't convicted of the ethical lapses they thought he might be guilty of, in their report his corruption is alleged, not proven.
Sadly, "bringing home the bacon" at the expense of the nation isn't considered corrupt. It's considered Job #1. Great report, Saturn.
Now write about the esteemed senator from Alabama who is fillibustering for his pork.
I thought about it, and you inspired me to write a dissenting post :)
I just dreamt that I was attending Arlen Spector's wedding. Everyone was there from Barack Obama to steel puddlers who looked as if they were dragged off work. In my dream, Pennsylvania appears to be a disjointed state, filled with different regions of wildly different tempermants, each suspicious and resentful of other classes and regions. And the answer is to keep a lid on it. The wedding had an almost authoritarian dictatorial aspect to it. What do Philadelphia lawyers have in common with the Amish? What does Pittsburgh have to do with Allentown? Hundreds of years have allowed little fiefdoms to accumulate their own identities and structures disconnected from other principalities.

In the past, Pennsylvania has been famous for its corruption. And Arlen Spector first distinguished himself nationally by burying the bodies in the Warren Commission report. Hugh Scott was the amiable senator sitting on top of the Republican machine, as bad as any other in the country.

Is this a correct take on the state character of Pennsylvania? I'd like readers from PA to comment.
I find this article troubling. As New Buddha Fan pointed out, while the title is sensational and the assertions damning, the evidence is scant, very scant. You label certain practices "corrupt" and, at the same time, "the way the system works." It's hard to argue that it's corrupt, if it's how the system works--call the system dysfunctional, in need of changing, but the fact of the matter is that it is human nature to vote for the person who brings jobs and money to your district, and so to expect a representative to do anything else is essentially demanding that they commit political suicide. So it seems to me that WE'RE the problem, not necessarily our reps. If we rewarded them for their integrity, then that's what we'd see.

And again, very light on the actual facts. Something is "probably" corruption? Maybe, I don't know. But what I do know is that there is something distasteful about smearing someone like this without laying out the proof.
This is a good, brief comment on John Murtha's legislative life, it has to be general.
To those who commented on the lack of specifics, use teh google and do your own research. Those of us who have paid attention over the years will appreciate the effort to catch up.
Thanks for this story; makes you see why these pols are so entrenched in their positions.
One reason for Murtha's longevity that has largely been ignored is the fact that he never sought a House leadership position (meaning Majority Leader or Speaker). You are correct that the corruption in which he participated is widespread, and was no better or worse than that of many of his peers. I suggest that had he sought the Speakership, his actions would have cost him dearly, and quite possibly resulted in imprisonment, and certainly resignation from the House. Why? Take a look at what happened to Jim Wright in 1989, and Dan Rostenkowski a few years later. They were two powerful House members who, like Murtha, were much beloved by their constituents, but as soon as they achieved real power, the press and their GOP adversaries aggressively pursued them until they resigned, or in the case of Rostenkowski, were indicted. What they did was no different than what Murtha, and many others of both parties, regularly engage in.
"The "possibly" you're talking about, OcularN, isn't mine, but from the CREW folks. Since he wasn't convicted of the ethical lapses they thought he might be guilty of, in their report his corruption is alleged, not proven."

Another nice ass covering, "Oh I didn't say it, I just posted it". Say, the next time you decided to run a hatchet job on someone could you at least wait until the body is cold? Or are you shooting for a future with faux "news"?
I would also say...don't ignore symptoms of gall bladder disease. I'm not sure if Murtha did or not, but if you can catch it before things advance the gall bladder can be removed laparascopically with much less risk and quicker recovery. Both my wife and my sister have been down this road. In my sister's case, she almost waited too long, ignoring symptoms for over a year before she finally got things checked out.

Her doctor was still able to do laprascopic surgery but she was already in the early stages of pancreatitis. Had she not been a 25 year-old in otherwise good health things might not gone as well.
In nhis last official act, he obtainned stimulus funding for a cemetary that only he would be buried in. Why let death break form?
Excellent summary. Your same words could be substituted someday for our one Alaskan legislator, Don Young.
Call me old fashioned, but I've always thought it a bit more classy to wait for the dirt to hit the coffin, before the mud is slung at the history.
> "This is what gets you re-elected, by the way.
> Not a vote on a jobs bill ..."

Surely I don't have to point out that massive giveaways to weapons manufacturers IS a jobs issue. A horrible, indirect backdoor way, but a way that ultimately creates some number of jobs locally.
You got one thing right: they must be feeling pretty grim in Johnstown. But then, feeling grim is something the folks in Johnstown are used to. All the tribulations of Appalachia and the rust-belt converged there and that's why Johnstown today is a city of 24,000 souls, whereas it had almost three times that many when I was born there in 1948. By the middle of the famously prosperous 50's, Johnstown was re-living the dirty 30's, with shut-down steel-mills and double-digit unemployment, including my Dad. He finally re-enlisted the Navy to get his family out of the place and we never went back.

There's no doubt that the late John Murtha was the archetype of the pork-barrel politician, but then no place ever needed of a bit of that bacon more than Johstown. Corrupt? I don't know. Is looking out for your own corruption? Is somebody saying the money ended up in Jack's own pocket? One thing's sure, a lot of it ended up in the pockets of working people who wouldn't have had jobs otherwise and they will bless his memory for it. If I still lived there, so would I.
He brought home the bacon for his district and the people he represented, industry, jobs, etc. That's one kind of corruption.

Another kind of corruption is the kind that manifest over the summer when the personal contributions to individuals in Congress from healthcare industry special interest groups was publicized. The individuals in Congress who could not get passed a simple health insurance reform bill that would benefit people in an economic, jobless, homeless, healthcareless crisis because it would affect the subsidized personal income of themselves. That's another kind of corruption.

I prefer the kind of corruption that Murtha indulged in. I don't think he ever had to hold the government hostage, either, shutting down the operations by refusing to play until he got paid.
Reminds me of Robert Byrd. Who'd do anything to bring jobs to West Virginia. You wonder what motivates these guys at base.

Did they amass wealth of their own? Did they simply want to stay in power? To do what? What did Murtha say to himself when he put his head down on the pillow at night? "Oh boy, I'm still in power!" or "Oh boy, I stayed in power so I can. . . " Or, do they flatter themselves that bringing jobs to rust belt areas is its own kind of service? Still curious. . .
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