By Roxana Tiron - 02/10/10 01:59 AM EST
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is poised to take the lead on defense appropriations and Boeing, a large employer in his home state, could benefit in the process.
Dicks, a veteran appropriator, is next in line by seniority to fill in the chairmanship of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, left vacant by the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). He will be acting chairman until a formal vote.
Dicks said he had support from House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), and still needed to talk to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Democratic Steering Committee would have to vote on the new chairman. The Democratic Caucus would have the final vote.
The late Murtha was a close ally of Pelosi and aided her political ascent. Dicks has a good relationship with the Speaker and has fostered a connection with her during their time on the House Intelligence Committee. Pelosi supported Dicks’s becoming the chairman of the Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies subcommittee.
Those who know Dicks said the panel will make a smooth transition under him, with most staff likely to stay on. Though he has a reputation for being very aggressive and determined, Dicks is expected to lead the committee by consensus rather than personal force.
And most defense insiders believe Dicks won’t budge on one issue: the Air Force’s new fleet of midair refueling tankers.
Dicks would take the gavel of the Defense panel as the Pentagon decides whether Boeing would win a $35 billion contract for a new fleet of midair refueling tankers. Boeing has been going head to head with a team made up of Northrop Grumman and EADS North America. The Pentagon is scheduled to issue a final request for proposals Feb. 23.
George Behan, Dicks’s chief of staff and spokesman, said the tanker competition “will be a subject of interest” to the lawmaker, but Behan indicated that Dicks would let the current selection process take its course.
Defense insiders have called Dicks an unapologetic supporter of Boeing, particularly when it comes to the tanker program. Boeing would build the tanker aircraft in Washington state, where it has large commercial aircraft operations. Dicks has long opposed the tanker contract going to EADS, the parent company of Airbus — Boeing’s rival on the commercial market.
Eight years ago, Dicks spoke directly to President George W. Bush in support of a lease deal with Boeing for tankers, according to news reports. That deal, however, went sour and landed two Boeing officials in prison for corruption.
“Misconduct blew the deal. It is painful. It would have been the greatest thing I had done,” Dicks said at the time.
Following the failure of the lease deal, the Pentagon opened up competition for the $35 billion contract, but the competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman-EADS has been politically charged and has yet to be resolved.
Dicks warned in the past that “if the Air Force doesn’t get it right, I’m going to reserve all of my options as a member of the Appropriations Committee to offer amendments and do everything I can to stop this thing from going forward.”
The late Murtha was a strong proponent of splitting the multibillion-dollar contract between the two competitors, in part because he said he could not see another way out of the political quagmire and controversy.
Dicks is also a strong supporter of funding for Boeing’s C-17 cargo aircraft, but was critical of the Army’s former Future Combat Systems program, for which Boeing was one of the prime contractors. Dicks was not a strong backer of ground-based missile defense, another project of importance to Boeing.
Dicks will “attempt to be as fair as possible to everyone,” Behan told The Hill.
Dicks’s ascension to the Appropriations Defense chairmanship would complete Boeing’s trifecta of support in Congress: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is a veteran defense appropriator, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) just took over the gavel of the House Armed Services Committee’s Air and Land subcommittee.
Boeing and its employees have topped Dicks’s list of campaign contributors over the past two decades with $142,250, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Dicks also had generous contributions from other major defense companies, such as Northrop Grumman with $101,500, Lockheed Martin with $78,200 and General Dynamics with $70,000.
Dicks’s links to K Street come through Denny Miller Associates. The firm has longstanding ties to Washington state, represents a large number of defense contractors and has hired several former Dicks staffers.
Meanwhile, McBee Strategic was started by Steve McBee, a former policy aide for Dicks. McBee Strategic has expanded far beyond defense. Defense clients are only a small portion of the firm’s roster.
Dicks was among other members of the House Appropriations Defense panel who were investigated last year by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) for directing earmarks to defense companies that had hired the now-defunct lobby shop PMA Group, whose founder is under federal investigation for fraudulent campaign contributions. The OCE closed its investigation into Dicks, finding no cause to continue.
Defense insiders who have known Dicks for years say the lawmaker is very approachable and likes to solicit significant input from other committee members and staff. He is also known to work well with Republicans.
One defense source said Dicks is “very substantive” and likes to foster dialogue before he reaches decisions.
Like Murtha, Dicks supported the Iraq war resolution in 2002 but later recanted. Dicks has been on the Appropriations Committee since getting sworn in to office in January 1977. He edged out then Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) for the position, but later became one of Gore’s most trusted allies in Congress, supporting his presidential bids in 1988 and 2000, according to the Washington Post.