Tiahrt vote on project irks Murtha

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) exploded at a colleague on the Appropriations  defense subcommittee, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), on the House floor last week after Tiahrt voted in a private meeting to cut $23 million from a project in Murtha’s district.

By voting to shut down the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) in Murtha’s district, Tiahrt violated an unspoken rule of the Appropriations Committee: Don’t mess with your fellow appropriators’ projects. This is especially important when the project belongs to the chairman of a powerful subcommittee.

Murtha vented his anger against Tiahrt for voting last Wednesday to kill the center in Johnstown, Pa., by unleashing a loud, finger-jabbing, spittle-spraying piece of his mind, according to lawmakers who witnessed it. Murtha threatened to withdraw support from a defense project associated with Boeing that would convert commercial aircraft into military refueling tankers. Such a move could create big problems for the project because Murtha is chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which allocates all defense spending.

The tanker project is vital to Tiahrt’s district, which includes Wichita, home to a Boeing plant that would help assemble the planes. Over the past three years, Boeing has been the second-biggest federal contractor in Tiahrt’s district, selling $1.1 million worth of services to the federal government since 2004, according to FedSpending.org, a website that tracks government contracts.  

Tiahrt, who once worked for Boeing, estimates that the tanker project could create 800 to 1,000 local jobs. In January, Tiahrt triumphantly announced: “Boeing will locate the KC-X finishing center in Wichita if Boeing is successful in winning the air refueling tanker contract with the United States Air Force.”

Both Tiahrt’s and Murtha’s projects have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

The Pentagon’s attempt to lease tankers from Boeing for $30 billion resulted in investigations by Congress and the Defense Department’s inspector general and eventually led to a former Air Force procurement official going to jail for negotiating with Boeing over the tankers while also jockeying for a job at the company.

In 2005, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called it “the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history.”

A tanker contract with Boeing is still possible. But the controversy has forced Boeing to compete for the deal with a team lead by Northrop Grumman and EADS North America.

Murtha’s project has also faced criticism.

President Bush recently set aside $16 million in his proposed budget to close the Drug Intelligence Center, which employs nearly 400 people in Murtha’s hometown. Last year, the House Government Reform Committee also called for its shutdown.

“NDIC was never able to fulfill its original mission of centralizing and coordinating drug intelligence, given its remote location and the unwillingness of the other Federal agencies to contribute significant information,” the panel concluded in its report, which described the center’s budget as “an expensive and duplicative use of scarce federal drug enforcement resources.”

Many projects in the intelligence authorization bill escape public notice because the bill is marked up in secrecy, and some projects are included in classified addenda. This has prompted Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong How to survive an impeachment Are Senate Republicans certain that Trump can return to office? MORE (R-Ariz.), an outspoken fiscal conservative, to ask Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to set up a special task force to investigate secret earmarks in the intelligence bill.

Critics of NDIC say it largely replicates the work of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center, which is located at the frontlines of the drug war along the Mexican-American border.

Those critics include Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who last week introduced an amendment during a closed-door mark-up of the intelligence authorization bill that would have cut $23 million from NDIC, leaving it with just enough money to close down and transfer its essential operations to other federal facilities.

When that proposal failed on a party-line vote, Rogers offered a second amendment directing the Justice Department’s inspector general to conduct an audit of the effectiveness of the Drug Intelligence Center. Such a report could have embarrassed its supporters by agreeing with the Bush administration that a center in Johnstown is unnecessary.

“This should not be about a member’s interest, it should be about national interest,” said Rogers in an interview. Rogers said the Drug Enforcement Administration has a hiring freeze in place and that the money used to run the Drug Intelligence Center could be used to hire 350 new agents.

Tiahrt voted for both amendments, but he is the only Republican on both the House Select Committee on Intelligence and the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, which Murtha chairs.

“Certainly in the Appropriations Committee members mark their territory and don’t expect anyone encroaching,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which describes itself as a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

“You stick together and you vote for all the appropriations bills and you support other members,” he said. “You’re not supposed to go into somebody else’s sandbox and mess with their toys. You’re supposed to stay in your own sandbox and people will leave you alone.”

When confronted on the House floor Wednesday night, Tiahrt explained that he was unaware that the project was one of Murtha’s, since Murtha doesn’t sit on the intelligence panel. But Murtha set him straight, swiftly and firmly.

Luckily for Tiahrt and Boeing, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the second-ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, was nearby during Murtha’s blowup and helped smooth things over, said witnesses. Dicks is one of Boeing staunchest allies in the House. Along with voters in Tiahrt’s district, Dicks’ constituents would be big winners if Boeing wins the tanker competition. Boeing would build the aircraft in Everett, Washington, which is within commuting distance of Dicks’ district.

For his part, Tiahrt says the loud flap with Murtha was merely a misunderstanding and declined to discuss it.
“It was a little misunderstanding,” said Tiahrt. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Roxana Tiron contributed to this report.