Dicks picked to chair powerful defense-budget panel
It took three weeks — or three decades, depending how you count it — but Rep. Norm Dicks finally got tapped for the job he's always coveted: chairman of the House subcommittee that controls the Pentagon's purse strings.
Seattle Times Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — It took three weeks — or three decades, depending how you count it — but Rep. Norm Dicks finally got tapped for the job he's always coveted: chairman of the House subcommittee that controls the Pentagon's purse strings.
The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted to install the Bremerton Democrat to succeed Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as head of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Murtha died Feb. 8 of complications following surgery to remove his gallbladder.
In turn, Dicks yielded the chairmanship of the Appropriations subcommittee for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., was named to the post.
Dicks, 69, has served on the defense subcommittee since 1979 alongside Murtha. The panel controls half of the discretionary spending in the federal budget, to the tune of $708 billion for 2011. By comparison, the interior subcommittee oversees $27 billion in programs.
Dicks' ascension comes as Boeing and Northrop Grumman are vying to build the next generation of Air Force tankers, one of the largest purchases ever for the Pentagon. Unlike Dicks, Murtha had favored splitting the estimated $40 billion initial contract between the two companies.
Now that he is the one wielding the gavel, "I hope nobody is talking about a split buy," Dicks said.
Dicks is a much more expansive personality than Murtha was, the type who instinctively holds elevator doors ajar for late dashers. Dicks said he intends to hold more hearings as well as seek more active participation from his fellow committee members, some of whom are relatively new to the panel and less familiar with complex weapons, intelligence and other issues.
The billions in discretionary military spending Dicks will oversee equals 60 percent of individual income taxes collected each year. The money pays for military wages to health care to fighter jets. About $100 billion of that is for the war in Afghanistan and $60 billion for Iraq.
In an interview Thursday, Dicks said more should be done to provide troops with the best equipment, medical care and post-combat support.
"Our biggest job is to be supportive of the troops and make sure that they have good equipment and not waste money," he said. "The country owes them a lot."
Another priority, Dicks said, is beefing up the Pentagon's acquisitions division, which was shrunk under the Bush administration. Dicks blamed the downsizing for the decadelong debacle over the air-refueling tanker contract.
The Pentagon twice had to void the award — once given to Boeing and once to Northrop — first because of illegal actions by a defense-procurement official and Boeing's chief financial officer, and then because of flawed contract evaluations.
This time around, Dicks said, Boeing should have "a big advantage" with its smaller 767 tanker that uses less fuel than the larger-capacity A330 tanker being offer by Northrop and its partner, EADS, the parent company of Airbus. The components for that tanker would be made in Europe and assembled in Alabama.
The lower fuel cost "I think will help us win," Dicks said.
And what difference, if any, it should make to have a lawmaker from the Puget Sound-area head the congressional panel in charge of paying for the tankers? "It certainly doesn't hurt," Dick said.
Dicks, called by some as "Mr. Boeing," may be feeling chastened since his brush last year with the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Dicks, Murtha and James Moran Jr., D-Va., who also serves on the defense subcommittee, directed $137 million in defense contracts to companies that had hired a lobbying firm, PMA Group, founded by a former subcommittee staffer. PMA Group donated $133,000 to Dicks.
The ethics office ended the investigation without taking action. The House ethics committee opted not to pursue its own probe.
Dicks said he favors greater transparency and other reforms on earmarks, spending projects directed by individual lawmakers. Asked if that means he would ask for fewer earmarks, Dicks said, "I'm not prepared to talk about that. But obviously as chairman, I don't want any problems."
Dicks rejected criticism by government watchdogs that earmarks are inherently corrupting. He said, for instance, that giving money to the Pentagon for projects it didn't ask for can prove valuable.
He cited the Predator drone, which the Air Force initially balked at buying. They now have become the primary unmanned aerial vehicle in use in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
Dicks' appointment must still be approved by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and by the full Democratic caucus. He had no challengers.
Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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