Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The New Kings of Defense Pork?

The new earmark kings? Washington Democrat Norman Dicks (top) and Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt are supporting a bill that would defund the Air Force's new tanker contract (awarded to Northrop-Grumman), in favor of a bid from rival Boeing. The Tiahrt-Dicks plan would be a $35 billion earmark, the largest in Congressional history.

Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt may soon enter the golden pantheon of pork-barrel politics. According to Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, Mr. Tiahart may offer an amendment to a future defense bill, halting the Air Force's recently-awarded, $35 billion tanker contract. Tiahrt's proposed amendment would be the largest earmark in Congressional history, according to the watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste.

Congressman Tiahrt is a former Boeing employee and the defense giant has a huge plant in his Wichita district. Tiahrt has been upset since the Air Force awarded its next-generation tanker contract to rival Northrop-Grumman, a move that could mean billions of dollars--and thousands of jobs--in states like Kansas and Washington, where Boeing has a major presence. That's why Mr. Tiahrt and his Congressional allies are contemplating a bid to defund the tanker deal.

Tiahrt's chief ally in the legislative effort, Washington Congressman Norman Dicks, makes no secret of their plan. "We're going to try to eliminate funding," he recently told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Dicks, a Democrat, represents a district that includes Boeing's largest assembly plants.

Dicks and Tiahrt are following the lead of Pennsylvania's John Murtha, the powerful Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. When the Air Force announced that Northrop-Grumman had won the tanker contract, Mr. Murtha snorted "This is anything but a done deal." He also reminded the Chicago Tribune that "all this committee has to do is stop the money and this project is not going forward." Tiahrt's amendment would represent the first legislative attempt to halt the tanker program.

It's unclear when opponents of the tanker bill might offer their defunding amendment. At a 17 rally for Boeing in Washington, Tiahrt's staff distributed a memo, listing potential legislative targets for their earmark proposal. One of the bills is a supplemental funding measure for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Congressman Tiahrt admits the "war supplemental" is the wrong vehicle for a tanker decision, "I want to bring this issue to the attention of the Appropriations Committee."

If Tiahart and his supporters take a pass on the war funding bill, they could attach the defunding amendment to other defense authorization measures, now moving through the House and Senate. Obviously, inserting the tanker earmark into those bills would complicate Congressional approval and delay funding for other defense programs. And that's exactly what the Boeing caucus has in mind.

Citizens Against Government Waste has lambasted the Tiahrt-Dicks plan, naming the two Congressmen as their "Porkers of the Month." The group believes Congressional maneuvering on the tanker deal should stop until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) completes a review of the contract and releases its findings in mid-June. That strikes us as an eminently sensible approach.

But those pleas will be ignored by Congressmen opposed to the Northrop-Grumman tanker contract. There's simply too much money on the table and quite frankly, opponents of the tanker deal are afraid that it will stand on its own merits. That's a sharp contrast to Boeing's original "tanker lease" proposal, a sweetheart deal that triggered a criminal investigation and (ultimately) resulted in jail sentences for a senior company executive and the Air Force's top procurement civilian.

Boeing supporters are also keenly aware that their tanker (based on a 767 jetliner) delivers less fuel and cargo than its rival, which is built on an Airbus A330 airframe. In fact, the Northrop-Grumman/Airbus product beat the Boeing plane in four of five measures of merit, providing ample justification for winning the Air Force contract.

That's one reason that Boeing's friends in Congress will use "other tactics" to undo the tanker deal. Unable to beat the Northrop-Grumman entry in performance, Boeing's best hope is a legislative end-around, using its House and Senate pals to wage a guerrilla funding war against the winning bid.

Sadly, it just might work. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already criticized the tanker deal, claiming its will cost thousands of American jobs. That sort of argument has traction in an election year, particularly in states that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. The tanker contract is far from finished as a campaign issue, and presidential politics provide more incentives for gradually de-funding the current contract, or killing it outright.

Meanwhile, the Air Force desperately needs new tankers to replace 50-year-old KC-135s, which rolled off the Boeing assembly line during the Eisenhower administration. But, a protracted battle over the recently-awarded contract will further delay the delivery of new refueling planes, originally scheduled for 2012. Unfortunately, military readiness often takes a back seat to partisan and pork barrel politics in Washington. On its current track, the tanker battle could drag on for months--and if Congressman Tiahrt, Dicks and Murtha have their way--we may see the bidding process start all over again.

It's just one more reminder that our defense procurement process is hard-broke, and no one (at least, no one in Congress) has any incentive to fix it. Mr. Tiahrt and Mr. Dicks will wear their "Porker of the Month" title as a badge of honor--as long as it helps undermine the Northrop-Grumman deal, and improves Boeing's chances of winning the tanker contract.


Wanderlust said...

I believe this situation has far-reaching implications on how Federal projects both military and civilian are procured and funded. If Dicks and Tiahrt get their way on this one, the end result could be anarchy in the sourcing/funding process. There are no winners, and 300 million losers.

PCSSEPA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCSSEPA said...

If the Washington congressional delegation were sufficiently strong and politically competetent, we would not be going through all of this. Senators Tennis Shoes (Patty Murray) and Maria CANTwell are worthless. They have been in D.C. for a long time, but do not have the mental ability or political pull to get the job done. You should never send a woman to do a man's job - Scoop Jackson would have gotten the contract for Boeing the old fashioned way.