A number of Republicans had been focusing on “earmarks” in spending bills that had been inserted by Rep Murtha (D-PA), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. An earmark is a legislatively-mandated federal grant. During Murtha’s years in Congress, he had directed many earmarks toward funding projects at the local airport in his district, which was subsequently named for him. This was an effort to insert language in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act to prevent any further federal funds from being spent at projects at that airport.
The effort was made in the form of a motion to recommit (send back) the FAA Reauthorization Act the House was considering to the originating committee with instructions to add language prohibiting any funds in the bill from going to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport. The FAA Reauthorization Act provided $86 billion for airport improvements around the country.
Rep. Campbell (R-CA) made the motion to recommit with instructions. He first noted that the Murtha Johnstown airport “handles six commercial flights a week . . . to one place, Washington, D.C., a location all of 3 hours' drive from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But for those six commercial flights a week, less than one a day to a place only 3 hours' drive away, the Federal taxpayer has spent $150 million in improvements since 1990. . . In addition, the Federal taxpayer spends $1,394,000 every year in subsidies to the single air carrier making . . . less than one flight a day out of this airport. That, by the way, computes to nearly $5,000 in subsidy per flight, which takes less than 45 minutes since it's only 3 hours' drive away.”
Campbell characterized the spending on the airport as “wasteful and irresponsible”. He referenced the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, which had become a symbol of foolish capital spending, and called the Johnston facility “the airport for no one.” Campbell concluded by arguing “we have debts and deficits as far as the eye can see. If we can't stop wasting the taxpayers' money on boondoggles as obvious as this one, why should the public trust us at all with any of their money?”
Rep. Oberstar (D-MN), who was leading the effort on behalf of the legislation responded by noting “(T)his is the first negative earmarking that I have witnessed in Congress . . . To those on the other side who are laughing now, I wonder what their reaction will be when another amendment comes to deny funding . . . to an airport in their communities . . . This airport serves 1,000 military personnel. It serves the Pennsylvania National Guard. It serves the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and the U.S. Army Reserve, and these units have been deployed 28 times in the last 10 years in service of the United States abroad.”
Oberstar went on to argue that the proposed language would, among other things, unfairly prohibit funds going to the Murtha Johnstown Airport under the special federal program designed to help airports in small communities that had commercial air service prior to airline deregulation in 1978. He noted that the purpose of that program was “to ensure that small towns in rural areas would not be cut out of America's national system of airports and airport service and airline service. It has worked effectively.”
The motion was defeated on a vote of 154-263. One hundred and forty-three Republicans and eleven Democrats voted “aye”. Two hundred and thirty-five Democrats and twenty-eight Republicans and voted “nay”. As a result, no language was added to the FAA Reauthorization Act preventing any of the funds it authorized from going of the Murtha Johnstown Airport.