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The Death of an Appropriations Machine

With the death of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) Monday — just three days after he’d become the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania’s history — Capitol Hill has lost one of its most influential lawmakers, and perhaps the most proficient earmarker of them all. Not only was the 36-year Washington veteran a close confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but as chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Murtha built a career on directing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects back to his downtrodden district.

In the process, he made few friends among critics of pork-barrel spending — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington deemed him recently to be among the top 20 most corrupt lawmakers on the Hill — but Murtha was unabashed. Indeed, he once called the Democrats’ push for ethics reform “total crap,” and he used to brag that his middle initial stood for “power.” But of course, for the residents of blue-collar Johnstown — Murtha’s hometown and a former steel mecca-turned-shell of itself — he was a godsend whose reputation no scandal or ethics lapse could tarnish.

A decorated veteran of Vietnam, Murtha’s voice carried a great deal of weight on issues related to Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably his undiluted 2005 endorsement of pulling troops out of Iraq.

“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” he said in November 2005. “It’s a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress.”

As The Hill’s Roxana Tiron points out today, “Murtha also questioned the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and would have been a pivotal voice in the congressional debate over the issue this spring.”

More immediately, Murtha’s death opens up the chairmanship of the defense funding panel, leaving Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) — the third-ranking Democrat on the larger Appropriations Committee — next in line for the coveted spot. Indeed, although the decision is ultimately in the hands of Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), Dicks’ office is already predicting that the 17-term Washingtonian will snag the seat.

“He likely will succeed Murtha,” George Behan, chief of staff for Dicks, told the Seattle Times today.

And that’s good news for Seattle-based Boeing.

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