737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington

737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington
© Getty

Boeing's crisis management team is facing its toughest test in decades amid scrutiny over the safety of its 737 Max aircraft following two deadly crashes.

The aerospace giant has long been a powerful voice in Washington, backed by a large lobbying team and close ties with lawmakers whose districts and states are home to Boeing workers.

But with Boeing's 737 Max plane grounded around the globe and investigators and lawmakers in the U.S. demanding answers, that political clout is being tested.

ADVERTISEMENT

Boeing and the Trump administration initially resisted calls to halt flights of the plane. CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE two days after the crash, with Muilenburg expressing confidence in the plane's safety.

Under pressure, Trump reversed course just a day later, grounding the plane after every other nation had done so. The company and administration faced tough questions over whey they did not act sooner.

“The first 24 to 48 hours of a crisis indicates how well that crisis is going to go and Boeing, in the first 24 to 48 hours, made mistakes,” Gene Grabowski, a crisis communications specialist at kglobal, told The Hill.

Grabowski questioned Muilenberg's decision to stand by the plane.

“Boeing’s first instinct is its CEO called the president at the White House, which isn’t a bad move in and of itself, that’s probably a smart move, but then he said the wrong thing,” he said.

Publicly the company has tried to calm fears, promising to release a software fix for the plane, and says it is cooperating with investigators.

“Our Government Operations team is focused on sharing the most accurate and up-to-date information possible with Members of Congress, their staff and the relevant agency officials. Per established protocols, Boeing is limited in what we can say about this ongoing crash investigation,” a Boeing spokesperson told The Hill.

The company stressed that its focus now is on cooperating with investigators.

“There is no lobbying effort underway relating to the 737 Max,” the spokesperson said.

But the scrutiny Boeing is facing is only intensifying, with new questions on how the 737 Max was certified for flight and over the company's broader business practices.

The FAA is now reviewing the decision in 2017 to certify the 737 Max at the request of the Department of Transportation. And on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that the FBI is joining a criminal probe into the plane's certification.

Critics have long accused Boeing and other aerospace players of having a cozy relationship with regulators.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Subcommittee announced plans to hold a hearing on airline safety next week with top regulators testifying.

The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas), said a second hearing could bring Boeing executives before Congress.

Over in the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioHouse Democrats inch toward majority support for impeachment Trump bashes Mueller for 'ineptitude,' slams 'sick' Democrats backing impeachment Pelosi denies she's 'trying to run out the clock' on impeachment MORE (D-Ore.) also called for an investigation into how the plane was certified.

“Chairman DeFazio has been in close contact with the FAA since the Ethiopian Airlines crash and is committed to rigorous oversight,” a spokeswoman for the committee told The Hill. 

To add to Boeing's worries, the Pentagon's watchdog is also looking into whether acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanWhy Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary Five questions for Trump's new defense secretary on first major tour Trump says media is part of vetting his nominees: 'We save a lot of money that way' MORE improperly promoted his former employer Boeing while in office.

K Street watchers say overall the company is handling the crisis well for now, but will need to marshal all of its resources for the challenges ahead.

Sources praised Boeing's top lobbyist, Tim Keating, who has been with the company for over a decade, as an experienced Washington hand.

“I think Boeing is doing a responsible and productive job so far. First, they have been publicly responsive — but in a controlled way,” a GOP lobbyist told The Hill

"I thought the CEO's public messaging was productive," the lobbyist added, referring to a public statement from Muilenburg on Monday, vowing to make Boeing planes "even safer."

The company is also not turning to outside consultants, sources told The Hill. A morning conference call with Washington consultants was canceled this week.

“In most corporations, the crisis management protocols are pretty involved and given the complexity of Boeing’s business, I’m not surprised that they determined that they would keep this in-house at least in its initial stages,” Steven Billet, the director of the masters program in legislative affairs at George Washington University, told The Hill.

Boeing has long been one of the biggest players in the lobbying world with some heavy hitters on its team. It spent $15.1 million on lobbying in 2018 with 31 in-house lobbyists and 16 lobbying firms on retainer. 

The company retained Norm Dicks & Associates on a $290,000 contract for the year with firm founder former Rep Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) on the account, according to disclosures.

Boeing also has $240,000 contracts with Roberti Global, with founder Vincent Roberti on the account; S-3 Group, with Mike Ference, former senior policy advisor to ex-House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorEmbattled Juul seeks allies in Washington GOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington MORE (R-Va.) on Boeing matters; and Gephardt Group.

Boeing can also count on Capitol Hill allies from both parties.

“As it relates to policymaker engagement, Boeing has a long history of bipartisan engagement - and that team and its experience is paying dividends for them now,” the GOP lobbyist said.

“There’s no question in my mind, with no evidence whatsoever, that Boeing is meeting with key members of Congress because there are a lot of jobs at stake here and also they have other contracts,” Eric Dezenhall, a crisis communications specialist, told The Hill. 

"It’s an impossibility that the company is not all over the Hill."

Boeing spent big in the 2018 cycle, giving over $1.5 million total to 159 House Democrats and 41 Senate Democrats. It gave over $1.6 million total for 183 House Republicans and 27 GOP senators. 

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellWill Congress act to stop robocalls? Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, received the most money at $54,065. In the House, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path MORE (D-Wash.) received the most in the 2018 cycle at $31,250. Both hail from the state where Boeing was founded.

“I reached out to Boeing early last week to get an update on the crash. Due to the lack of black box data there was little public information at the time,” Smith told The Hill. “Right now, their effort needs to be focused on working with the FAA, and other international partners, to find answers about what happened with the airplane.”

Billet said keeping lawmakers in the loop was crucial for Boeing as it navigates the tough path ahead.

“If I were the chair of any of the committees, I certainly would have been asking questions and trying to find out what was going on. They should have that expectation to be kept informed," he said.

For now, Boeing insists it is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of its planes.

“Boeing continues to support the investigation and is working with the authorities to evaluate new information as it becomes available," a Boeing spokesperson said. "Safety is our highest priority as we design, build and support our airplanes.”

The company will be closely watched as they try to convince regulators and lawmakers.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the facts that come out — today, tomorrow or six months from now — be addressed and responded to,” said the GOP lobbyist.