The end of the era of Congressional dinosaurs 

Even the staunchest earmark foe had to feel a twinge with the passing of John Murtha.

Not just because the congressman's family is pained by the sudden loss of an imposing figure, but because it was another paragraph in the final chapter of an era in American politics.

The era of the dinosaurs is ending and the new epoch will be one of great upheaval.

Murtha was a Nixon baby -- elected in 1974 as national revulsion at the Watergate scandal booted Republicans from previously safe seats.

Murtha, then a hawkish Vietnam vet serving in the state legislature, jumped at the chance in 1974 to run for the seat left vacant by the death of Republican John Saylor, an old hand who himself had slipped into Congress in 1949 after the death of Rep. Robert Coffey.

It seems the only way to get into Congress from the Johnstown region is to wait for someone to die.

Once in Washington, Murtha became adept at the game that had dominated since the New Deal: Bring home the bacon.

But because of the government reforms that came in as part of the Democrats' pledge to clean up Washington following Nixon's exile, some of the rules of the congressional pork olympics had to change. But rules have loopholes, and Murtha was a genius at finding them.

You couldn't simply rain down dollars on specious government projects that employed your friends and supporters as Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson once did. Campaign accounts were monitored. Plus, a new dam or road was not enough to ensure a grateful electorate.

The Murtha model was to find money already going to an approved budget expense and then find a way to get that money spent in your district to the benefit of your supporters. Murtha's son ended up as government contractor while his brother became a lobbyist for defense firms that wanted to do business with big brother's committee. Little defense firms popped up around Johnstown like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Murtha's district, which has a hard beauty and flinty folk that would fit in "How Green Was My Valley," was glad to have the help because some other Democratic initiatives -- environmental and workplace rules on the coal and steel industries -- had hit the district hard.

For almost 30 years, the Murtha model ruled Washington. Republicans and Democrats alike found ways to direct legitimate expenditures in such a way that their districts got to take a little off the top. Sure it's good to have flak jackets for the boys, but why not spend a little more to have the flak jackets made in your district. So what if it costs a few million more. Anybody can get an appropriation, but the masters of the post-Watergate Congress knew how to get a little taste of every appropriation.

And while Watergate, like all of the scandals that came before it, revealed to voters some of the seediness of Washington and the smallness of even the most powerful politicians, it shed little light on the way the city actually worked. Once the hearings were over and the TV cameras moved on, the curtain of mystery that had concealed the lawmaking process descended again. Everyone in Congress could still go back home and play the Wizard of Oz, exuding an aura of magic and power.

But as birth of lithography helped make Andrew Jackson president, technology shook up things for Murtha and his disciples.

First came C-SPAN, which revealed all of the little men behind their curtains. Watching a gas bag read a resolution in support of the salamanders of Oregon into the Congressional Record convinced Americans that these were not the heirs to the Founding Fathers but a glorified and expensive version of the dummkopfs on their town council.

But it was the Internet that brought the age of the congressional dinosaurs to a close as sure as a comet smashing to Earth. Once we knew what was in the bills and who was funding the campaigns of these exalted aldermen, we knew enough to get good and mad.

But now the work of democracy will be harder for constituents -- always watching and less able to vote for pork over principle.

As Jerome Lawrence wrote about the invention of the airplane in "Inherit the Wind," "the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at

About The Author

Chris Stirewalt


Washington Examiner Political Editor Chris Stirewalt, who coordinates political coverage for the newspaper and in addition to writing a twice-weekly column and
regular blog posts.

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