Murtha’s bittersweet legacy comes to an end

John Feehery Contributor
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John Murtha was one of those guys whose influence didn’t really translate that well in today’s media culture.

He was a rock-ribbed former Marine who had two key objectives in his Congressional career: Support the troops and take care of his district.

He attracted his fair share of controversy in his time. He was implicated in the infamous ABSCAM controversy in the late 1970s. He was caught on tape thinking very carefully about a possible bribe attempt from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik. He narrowly escaped prosecution in a scandal that netted several politicians.

Later on his career, he became known as the king of pork-barrel politics for spending a bunch of money on an airport in his district that nobody ever uses. It’s a nice airport, but it would be a lot nicer if some planes would fly into it with real passengers every once in a while.

Murtha strongly backed Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in her bid to become Minority Leader, and when she became Speaker, she strongly backed his bid to become Majority Leader. Both of those races were against the same guy, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Not sure what Hoyer did to anger those two, but Murtha was much more successful in getting Pelosi elected than Pelosi was in getting Murtha elected.

Murtha was a real force on the House floor. On occasion, when then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) needed a few votes from the Pennsylvania corner on institutional things, like a Congressional pay raise or things like that, he would talk to Murtha.

Murtha was also an NRA guy, so DeLay could count on his support to stop the anti-gun folks from making gun ownership illegal.

Murtha was not a doctrinaire liberal, despite his support of Pelosi. In fact, he wasn’t really a liberal at all. He came out against the Iraq War, but that didn’t mean he was a pacifist. He strongly supported defense spending, from his perch on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. That may have been because a lot of that money went back to his district through earmarks.

Murtha was famous, when he chaired the Defense subcommittee, for moving his bill, a bill that spent up to $500 billion, through the House floor in less than a half-hour. Sure, you could offer and amendment, but you’d better hurry. Didn’t get there in time? Whoops, too bad. Well, there’s always conference.

Murtha was old school, and old school had its charms and its warts. Part of its charm was that guys like Murtha weren’t blow-dried, plastic politicians. They were authentic, maybe too authentic for their own good. The warts? Well, getting almost nabbed by the FBI and wasting the taxpayers’ money on Congressional boondoggles is pretty warty to me.

Murtha’s death is a real blow to the Congress as an institution and to Speaker Pelosi. He had tremendous sway over the more moderate forces within the Democratic Caucus and he knew how to cut a deal. Those qualities will be really missed by the Democrats as they try to find their way this year.

John Feehery is president of the Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm dedicated to helping its clients achieve their legislative and communications objectives in Washington, D.C. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a contributor to The Hill’s “Pundits Blog.”