Washington state lawmaker ascends to powerful funding post

Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state.
Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Over the past 30 years, Rep. Norm Dicks has been in the middle of virtually every of the nation's major defense funding controversies — from increasing military pay after the Vietnam War to the B-2 stealth bomber, and from the MX missile to replacing the Air Force's C-5 cargo plane with a modified Boeing 747.

At the same time, the major Army, Air Force and Navy installations in Washington state survived four rounds of base closings unscathed and emerged as cornerstones in the nation's defense community.

Now, the Washington state Democrat almost certainly will become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, which controls the Pentagon's $650 billion budget. It represents roughly half of the discretionary spending in the federal budget.

It's an enormously powerful chairmanship. Coupled with Democratic Rep. Adam Smith's new chairmanship of an important House Armed Services subcommittee, it gives Washington state a major voice in national security and defense polices.

It also could provide a boost to Washington state's bases and to Boeing, though given the ongoing dispute over earmarks, lawmakers are increasingly cautious about steering vast sums of money to their districts or states.

Even so, Dicks said, "this subcommittee is critically important to my district. I've always tried to do positive things for my district and my state."

Dicks would replace Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who died Monday from complications following gall bladder surgery. Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the House Democratic Caucus all have to approve Dicks' appointment.

While Murtha had been sick, Dicks had been acting chairman. Dicks worked the phones last week rounding up support from such members as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. As of late last week, he had no known opposition.

"Everything looks pretty well lined up," Dicks said in an interview.

Dicks has a strong background in defense and national security issues. He has served on the defense appropriations subcommittee since 1979 and spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee, where he was in line to become chairman before Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994.

Dicks and Murtha worked closely together over the years, and last Thanksgiving traveled to Afghanistan together. The transition is expected to be seamless, as the two lawmakers have seen eye to eye on most major defense issues. One exception is the ongoing competition for a $35 billion contract to replace the Air Force's aging aerial refueling tanker.

Murtha had been a staunch proponent of splitting the buy between Boeing and a team that includes the parent company of Europe-based Airbus. Dicks has opposed a split buy.

The differences between the two have not been so much over substance as style. Murtha represented a down-on-its-heels, gritty steel and coal district. He was comfortable working in the shadows on Capitol Hill. Dicks' district stretches from the rural Olympic Peninsula to Tacoma, and the congressman is pretty much an in-your-face, in-the-open type of lawmaker.

"It's the difference between Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a national security think tank based in northern Virginia. "I don't see a change in the thrust of the committee, but there will be major stylistic changes."

Thompson said Dicks' strengths include an understanding of the appropriations process and defense technology, a focus on results, and "everyone likes him. It's so obvious."

As for bringing money and projects back to the state, Thompson said that "historically the Washington state congressional delegation has looked out for its industrial base."

Other analysts say Boeing could benefit from Dicks assuming the chairmanship, and not just in the tanker competition.

"For Boeing this is great news," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, a national security consulting firm. At stake in the coming years, Aboulafia said, are the survival of Boeing's C-17 and F-18 production lines.

"Dicks has been supportive of Boeing on the tanker front," Aboulafia said. "I don't know whether it will extend to other areas."

Aboulafia said Dicks' and Smith's new assignments will be "obviously helpful" to Washington state.

Yet both Dicks and Smith sought to downplay the impact.

The sprawling Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with 32,700 active-duty personnel. 4,900 National Guard and Reserve personnel and 14,500 civilian employees, is in Smith's congressional district but was once in Dicks' district. Dicks' district includes the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the submarine base at Bangor and other naval facilities.

Smith, the chairman of the Air and Land Force subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, does not have a reputation for steering money back home.

"That's not the way I do things," said Smith. "What I want is the best equipment for our men and women in the military. ... I do not believe that my role on the committee is to steer as much money as possible to my state or my district."

Local officials, however, are hoping Dicks-Smith will deliver.

"Without a doubt this is big news," said Gary Brackett, business and trade development manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. "You're talking about the major industry in our area. It provides more jobs, more income and more contracts than any other sector. ... Both congressmen have paid very close attention to the military — both on a Pierce County basis and a regional basis."

Echoing Smith, Dicks said he wants to ensure the troops have all the equipment they need and adequate resources and facilities to take care of them when they return from deployment. He also talked about the need for a new bomber to replace the B-52 and a new submarine to replace the Trident.

Among his other priorities, Dicks said, are improving the nation's intelligence gathering, improving the nation's cyber security, and strengthening the National Guard and Reserves.

"Maggie (the late Washington Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson) used to call this kitchen work," Dicks said.

Late last year, the Office of Congressional Ethics ended its investigation without taking action into the relationship between Dicks and a defense lobbying firm that is under federal investigation for possible criminal violations. Dicks received more than $133,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbying firm, its employees and clients. He secured $27 million in funding for four of the firm's clients.

The investigation focused on whether Dicks secured the earmarks in exchange for the campaign contributions. Dicks had steadfastly maintained he had done nothing wrong.

The lobbying firm, the PMA Group, also had links to Murtha.

Dicks said he will insist that subcommittee members follow all the new House ethics rules when it comes to disclosing earmarks.

"We will be extra vigilant," he said.

In taking the chairmanship of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Dicks will have to give up the chairmanship of the interior appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the $27 billion budget for the Interior Department, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

Dicks will remain the No. 2 Democrat on the interior subcommittee.

"Norm was flat-out terrific and, frankly, we will miss that," said Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club's deputy national field director based in Seattle. "He will still be the ranking member, and that is not insignificant."

Dicks said he will remain a force on the interior subcommittee, knows its new chairman, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., well and doesn't expect federal funding for the Puget Sound cleanup or other programs and policies important to Washington will suffer.