RIP John Murtha: American corruption at its finest

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 barrell 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.

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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