Rep. Norm Dicks is about to go from Mr. Boeing to Mr. Spending

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Maybe this whole outsourcing thing has gone too far. This week, House Democrats indicated they have plans to contract out the federal government's spending to Boeing.

Specifically, they are planning to outsource it to Mr. Boeing, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Boeing), a Washington state lawmaker who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Boeing sources and has -- by complete coincidence, of course -- directed tens of billions of dollars of government business to the military contractor.

Now, with the just-announced retirement of Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), Democrats are signaling that he will be replaced as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee by Dicks, the next in line -- giving the honorable gentleman from Boeing broad control of about $1.4 trillion in annual discretionary spending. It's an odd message the Democrats are sending: Return us to power, and we'll return to business as usual.

Dicks has survived a House ethics probe related to influence peddling; he has skated free even though his contributors indicated that they intended their contributions to influence his actions. In recent weeks, he's been accused of what Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) calls "brazenly inappropriate behavior" in bullying competitors from bidding against Boeing for a $40 billion Pentagon contract. Dicks's office told me that it was a "unique case" and that Dicks isn't uniformly pro-Boeing.

To be sure, such behavior makes Dicks a hero at home, where Boeing is the state's biggest employer. And here in the nation's capital, he's hardly the only one who does business this way. That's the problem. Dicks, like the late John Murtha, the man who preceded him as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, is merely one symbol of a culture in which campaign cash often appears to trump the national interest.

Dicks himself realized the perception problem and joined House Democrats this year in a temporary, partial ban on pet-project "earmarks" for the current Congress. But Democrats' willingness to promote Dicks (who opposes an outright ban) suggests that gesture was less than sincere.

Dicks has accepted $142,250 from Boeing since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, part of more than $700,000 from defense industries. Boeing and others have given tens of thousands more to a political action committee Dicks runs. And that's just a fraction of the overall support for Dicks. The Seattle Times reported that Dicks was named as an honoree by donors who gave $478,000 to charities supported by him in the first half of 2008 alone.

At the same time, Dicks, one of the top House earmarkers, has directed $134 million in federal earmarks to favorite projects in the past three years, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which isn't counting the earmarks he makes with other lawmakers.

Is there a quid pro quo? House ethics investigators looking into PMA Group, a lobbying outfit that gave generously to Dicks and others on his subcommittee, found that Dicks got $56,000 in PMA-related contributions in the past two election cycles. During that same period, PMA clients were awarded earmarks requested by Dicks worth nearly $20 million.

Investigators found evidence that businesses "believe that a political donation to the member has an impact on the member's decision to author an earmark." Further, a Dicks aide told investigators that "Rep. Dicks had a strong affinity for Boeing."

Mr. Boeing's explanation: "[H]e does not review FEC filings to determine who has contributed," the investigators reported. "He explained that he had not been in a competitive race since 1982, and therefore, he did not have to spend his time fundraising." Dicks was cleared.

The scandal, as Michael Kinsley has said on various occasions, is what's legal.

What Dicks did for PMA clients is small change compared with what he's done for Boeing. He's been working for a decade on getting the company a huge contract for aerial refueling tankers. After the Air Force accepted a cheaper bid from Northrop Grumman and the Airbus parent in 2008, Dicks went on a campaign to reverse the decision. "Give it to Boeing," he demanded.

That's just what's likely to happen. Congressional investigators found flaws in the bidding, and the contract was rebid. Northrop, knowing it couldn't beat the congressman from Boeing, pulled out. The Airbus parent tried to find another partner, but Dicks publicly warned American companies against helping Airbus.

The American companies quickly obeyed Mr. Boeing and ended talks with Airbus. They know what the rest of the country could learn if Dicks gets his promotion: What's good for Boeing is good for the country.

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