John Murtha King of Pork

John Murtha gets more pork for his district than any other Representative.

John Murtha King of Pork If John Murtha were a businessman, he’d be the biggest employer in this town.

The powerful U.S. congressman has used his clout on Capitol Hill to create thousands of jobs and steer billions of dollars in federal spending to help his hometown in western Pennsylvania recover from devastating floods and the flight of its steelmakers.

More is on the way. In the massive 2008 military-spending bill now before Congress — which could go to a House-Senate conference as soon as Thursday — Mr. Murtha has steered more taxpayer funds to his congressional district than any other member. The Democratic lawmaker is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which will oversee more than $459 billion in military spending this year.

Johnstown’s good fortune has come at the expense of taxpayers everywhere else. Defense contractors have found that if they open an office here and hire the right lobbyist, they can get lucrative, no-bid contracts. Over the past decade, Concurrent Technologies Corp., a defense-research firm that employs 800 here, got hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to Rep. Murtha despite poor reviews by Pentagon auditors. The National Drug Intelligence Center, with 300 workers, got $509 million, though the White House has tried for years to shut it down as wasteful and unnecessary. Another beneficiary: MTS Technologies, run by a man who got his start some 40 years ago shining shoes at Mr. Murtha’s Johnstown Minute Car Wash.

Thats’ quite a haul; Robert Byrd would be proud. So is Murtha.

Mr. Murtha defends Congress’s right to award such funds. Despite lobbying and earmark scandals of recent years, he argues that local lawmakers are best suited to understand the needs of their district. He says he’s backed new research into treating diabetes and breast cancer, largely funded with defense earmarks and steered to Pennsylvania hospitals and institutions.

He’s particularly proud of the military contractors that have flocked to his district. “They do their work on time and at a competitive price,” he said in an interview, saying earmarks have helped spur economic development. “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

There’s no reason he should under the current system. The Federal government spends an inordinate amount of money and it’s his job to get as much of it back for his district as possible. Further, it makes sense for both fiscal and security reasons to shift as much defense contract money away from the National Capital Region as possible.

No doubt, directing these funds based on which area is home to the key committee chairmen in the House and Senate is a bizarre, inefficient process. It’s unclear, though, what feasible alternative exists. The Framers intentionally set up our legislature to represent provincial interests and it’s impractical to run committees on something other than a rough seniority system, since there’s a legitimate value to accumulated experience. Term limits, both for Congress in general and committee chairs in particular, might help somewhat but it would likely have no practical effect beyond spreading the pork out more evenly.

More problematic is the fact that these contractors are pouring large sums into Murtha’s campaign coffer (see Ed Morrissey and Brian Faughnan). Again, though, this is an indictment of the game, not the player.

The Abscam scandal (see Michelle Malkin) involved legitimate corruption. But Murtha’s role was murky, at best, with the Justice Department concluding “that Murtha’s intent was to obtain investment in his district,” rather than to line his pockets. It was also 26 years ago.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    John Murtha gets more pork for his district than any other Representative.

    Not only does he get more pork, but, given his immense girth, he probably eats more pork than any other Representative.

    Big John is known to scarf down platefuls of scrapple in the Capitol cafeteria.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    There are a couple of things that could be done. One is the line item veto. Another is that “earmarked” (aka directed funding) can only state a purpose and an amount, but that the award must be allocated by a competitive bid.

    While the line item veto can have it’s own problem, the idea that earmarks can only be awarded by competitive bid would cut out a lot of the nonsense. You keep the value of the earmark (e.g. Something needs to be done about X), but you reduce the incentives for the political pay offs because it isn’t clear who will win the contract. You could still get “bridge to no where” earmarks, but it would still be reduced if you can’t specify where the bridge is to be placed (or even if it is a bridge vs another solution).

  3. Alan Kellogg says:

    John Murtha has always struck me as a porkly fellow.

  4. mw says:

    “Again, though, this is an indictment of the game, not the player.” – JJ

    In this case, it is also the player. Murtha was identified by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) as one of the most corrupt politicians in Washington. No small achievement, as he is one of only four Democrats on the 22 congresscritter list. This is not to say the Dems are any less corrupt than Reps, they simply have not as much time at the plate, with only nine months in the majority and chairing the committees, compared to the 10+ years the Reps had to rack up their impressive record of corruption.

    The Dems really missed an opportunity to clean up the earmarking process. The ethics bill they eventually passed won’t do a thing to slow earmark corruption. By not doing so, they’ve planted the seeds for losing Congress in 2010 or 2012. The earmarking process is so corrosive and corrupting that a significant percentage of lawmakers are guaranteed to cross the line.

    I find it instructive to reference George Washington Plunkitt’s (a corrupt turn of the century NY Tammany Hall politician) distinction between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft”. From Wikipedia:

    “Most of his [Plunkitt’s] money was made through purchasing land, through his connections, he knew would be needed for public projects. He would buy such parcels, then resell them at an inflated price. This was “Honest Graft”. “Dishonest Graft” according to Plunkitt, would be buying land and then using influence to have a project built on it.”

    Both Jack Murtha and Denny Hastert (among others) have been flagged by CREW as participating in earmarking activity that fits Plunkitt’s definition of “Dishonest Graft”. The point, is that our legislators today regularly engage in activity that would not meet the moral standards of one of the most corrupt 1906 political participants of the most corrupt political organization in the history of the United States.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    But Murtha’s role was murky, at best,

    Murky? caught on tape talking about the conditions under witch he takes a bribe, lol, if you say so.`