Congress is poised to appropriate $100 million to keep one of the federal government's most scandal-ridden and contentious programs -- the Air Force's plan to replace its aging aerial-refueling tankers with new Boeing 767s.
Insiders say that the primary reason for the payout is that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has made Boeing Co.'s cause his own.
Hastert has worked aggressively behind the scenes to keep the tanker contract in Boeing's hands at least in part, his spokesman said, because Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, not far from his congressional district. Boeing also has needed the help. Questions about the cost of the program, among other worries, have prompted the Pentagon to put off deciding its fate until year-end at the earliest.
"Yes, the Speaker goes to bat for Illinois and he's been personally involved in this; he makes no secret about it," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. But Feehery portrayed Hastert's interest in the deal as more than pork-barrel politics. "He's not just fighting for the sake of his constituency; it's also for the country's sake," he said.
A fight is what it took. "I don't know how we could have done something this controversial without the Speaker's support," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), an advocate for the tanker program whose Wichita congressional district includes a large Boeing factory. "You've got to have someone with a lot of clout on your side and he's been there four-square for us."
"The Speaker has sure weighed in on this one," confirmed George Behan, spokesman for Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), who also labored on Boeing's behalf. "He worked hard."
Hastert, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has had to fight all year for the appropriation. Several lawmakers, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have added language to Senate bills that would restrict the program. Indeed, McCain has regularly tried since 2001 to limit, delay or terminate the Boeing plan. Still, at the Speaker's urging, House and Senate negotiators approved the seed money late Wednesday as part of a Pentagon spending bill. The entire measure is scheduled for votes in both chambers this week.
Boeing declined to comment. But its congressional backers say that they have stayed in close contact with the company's many lobbyists as they pressed the tanker issue. "I've been in contact with the Boeing office," Tiahrt said. "I probably talk to them once a week."
According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group, the $4 million Boeing spent to pay dozens of lobbyists last year (the latest data available) made it No. 20 on the long list of major companies and interest groups that try to influence Washington decision-makers. In the current election cycle, Boeing ranks No. 12 among corporations in campaign giving to federal candidates. Its political action committee has contributed $492,000 so far, of which $10,000 went to Hastert, PoliticalMoneyLine.com records show.
McCain and others have charged that the proposed $23.5 billion deal for 100 Boeing jets -- the costliest lease in U.S. history -- was designed more to benefit Boeing than American taxpayers. Boeing found itself on the defensive after acknowledging that it improperly hired as an executive the former Air Force official, Darleen A. Druyun, who negotiated the lucrative arrangement. Druyun pleaded guilty in April to illegally accepting a job with the company.
Druyun's hiring "is the worst example of the 'revolving door' in quite some time," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. The Boeing deal was "absolutely a waste of taxpayer money -- in the billions of dollars."
Nonetheless, seed money was shoehorned into the legislation thanks to heavy and repeated pressure by Hastert and his aides, Tiahrt and others involved in the process say. Hastert's team made its case at the White House, at the Pentagon and to key lawmakers. In the end, they managed to overcome more obstacles than any weapons program in recent memory. "The battle over these tankers is in a class by itself," said Scott Lilly, who spent 31 years as a Democratic congressional staffer, most of them dealing with appropriations.
The only program that came close in controversy, Lilly recalled, was the B-1A bomber, which was canceled by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 after only four prototypes were built. But that plane was shelved not so much for reasons of cost or ethical concerns but because Carter wanted to pursue a different nuclear-weapons strategy. He decided to develop cruise missiles that could be carried by less expensive subsonic aircraft like the B-52 rather than deploy a new, fast-flying jet like the B-1A.
Hastert did not accomplish everything he sought. The House-passed version of the appropriation designated Boeing as the supplier. The final version is less specific. What's more, the Pentagon is conducting two studies of the program and is reviewing its options, which include buying new tankers from another supplier, possibly the France-based Airbus SAS, and refurbishing rather than replacing the existing, 43-year-old fleet. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has put the entire contract on hold until after the November election. It's also unclear whether any new jets would be leased or bought.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that the appropriation survived gives hope to Boeing and its congressional friends. "We're pleased with this language; we hope it will further the program," said Dicks, whose home state of Washington houses major Boeing facilities.
According to Hastert aides, the Speaker worked with Tiahrt and Dicks to round up support in both the House and the Senate, where the Boeing deal faced louder opposition. Hastert counted among his allies there the Republican senators from Kansas, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback.
Their basic argument: The current fleet is so old that it needs to be replaced and only one American company is positioned to provide the tankers, Boeing.
Boeing has not been coy about saying one reason it decided to move to Chicago from Seattle was that it could count on Hastert's patronage. Hastert, the House's top Republican, makes a habit of helping Illinois-based corporations. He has championed measures for years that have benefited Caterpillar Inc. and UAL Corp., the parent company of United Airlines. In 1998, he added $250,000 to the Pentagon spending bill so that Amurol Confections Co. of his hometown of Yorkville, Ill., could study caffeinated chewing gum.
On the Boeing deal, Hastert had to face down many congressional opponents, including his own state's senator, Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). "The tanker lease was an unusually unfavorable deal for the taxpayers and an unusually favorable deal for Boeing," Fitzgerald said. "It appears to me that he [Hastert] is becoming fairly renowned for doing special little favors behind the scenes here and there at interesting times for some of his corporate buddies."
Regardless of his reason, however, when the Speaker spoke, money moved. "Out of respect for who the Speaker is, when he puts his blessing on something, it's a done deal," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), another Hastert ally on Illinois appropriations.