Murtha Dead, District Next?
That’s the clever, ominous, and likely correct subheadline to a piece by TNR senior editor Jason Zengerle. The key ‘graphs:
Now that Murtha has confounded the expectations of his constituents, his obituary writers will invariably describe him as “The King of Pork.” While the term is not meant as a compliment—and, in fact, Murtha’s political and legal troubles over the last few years stemmed from that well-deserved reputation—it’s worth remembering that, to the recipients of that pork, Murtha was a hero. For the last 15 years, he steered a steady stream of federal money—by some accounts as much as $2 billion—to Johnstown and, in the process, allowed the city to escape the fate of other once-booming steel towns that were unable to survive the collapse of that industry. Indeed, to visit Johnstown today is to encounter an oasis of relative prosperity—a city that boasts glass-and-steel office buildings, a Wine Spectator-award winning restaurant, even a symphony orchestra—in a desert of economic despair.
When any politician dies, especially one as long-serving as Murtha, his passing will be treated as the passing of more than an individual. And this is already being described as the end of various eras—from the end of the era of Democratic rule in Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District (which John McCain carried in 2008) to the end of the era of the “old bull” way of doing business on Capitol Hill. But Murtha’s death also signals something more than the death of a man or the death of an era: It likely spells the death of the city he represented.
When Murtha was alive, Johnstown raised myriad monuments to him—placing his name on everything from a technology park to an airport. But the city never prepared itself for the day when its honors to Murtha would have to come in the form of memorials. Johnstown’s success was not a faÃ§ade, but its prosperity was as dependent on one congressman as it had once been on one industry. It was almost as if Johnstown could not bring itself to imagine—and thus prepare for—what would happen once Murtha, like steel before him, was no longer there to sustain it. And now it will face the consequences of that failure.
Sadly, that’s likely right. One of the many downsides to allocating our national treasure according to which states and district the elderly men who rise to key committee chairmanships are from is that these states and districts become — like any other welfare recipient — dependent and complacent.