John P. Murtha, the powerful dean of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation who survived scandal and seismic political shifts to become the longest-serving U.S. House member from the state, died today from complications following gallbladder surgery.
He was 77.
Presiding over what became "the Murtha Corner" in the House, he wielded power quietly, working deals for his party's leadership, advising members on everything from defense spending to how to line up money for their districts. His 36 years in Congress were marked by extraordinary access to presidents of both parties. He was a confidante of the late Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Republicans and Democrats alike sought his advice on defense matters and, from his perch on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, he personally dispensed billions of dollars in federal funds, steering much of it to his economically wracked 12th Congressional District.
Revered in his district, never winning by less than 55 percent in a general election since he first went to the House, Mr. Murtha became famous initially as the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress, then as one of the kings of congressional pork. He was a perennial target of reform groups, a hero to lobbyists for his defense of their role in shaping legislation, and he created an elaborate and subsidized defense industry in his hometown of Johnstown, Cambria County.
His prowess in securing pork brought scrutiny, including widespread theorizing that he was the ultimate target of a criminal probe into a prominent lobbying firm, PMA, run by Pittsburgh native Paul Magliocchetti, a former staff member at defense appropriations.
Mr. Murtha was never charged in that or another probe, this one into Kuchera Industries, one of the dozens of defense contractors to spring up in the 12th District.
Mr. Murtha was first hospitalized with gallbladder problems in December. He had surgery Jan. 28 at the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He went home, but was hospitalized two days later when complications developed. According to a source close to Mr. Murtha -- confirming a report in Politico -- doctors inadvertently cut Mr. Murtha's intestine during the laparoscopic surgery, causing an infection.
Mr. Murtha died surrounded by family at the Virginia Medical Center in Arlington, Va., at 1:18 p.m. according to a spokesman.