Dicks: Boeing not guaranteed tanker, but ‘we had better win’

  • Fri Feb 12th, 2010 11:30pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield, Herald Writer

OLYMPIA — Congressman Norm Dicks said Friday that those convinced his expected political promotion locks up the U.S. Air Force tanker contract for Boeing are engaged in “wishful thinking.”

“There is going to be a competition and we had better win the competition,” he said. “It isn’t going to be rigged.”

He disputed aviation experts who contended earlier this week that Boeing’s chances will soar when he assumes leadership of a House committee overseeing defense spending including the $35 billion contract. One analyst went so far as to call it “a slam dunk.”

“That’s just not accurate,” said Dicks, D-Wash. The Obama administration, not Congress, is setting rules for Boeing’s expected contest against Northrop Grumman and its European partner EADS, parent company of Airbus.

“I can’t tell them what to do,” he said. “They make the decision and Congress can analyze it. I’m hoping we will win this on the merits.”

Until now, Dicks’ booming voice on behalf of Boeing — which would build the tankers in Everett — has been as one member of the House defense appropriations committee.

Soon, it will be as the chairman because Dicks, first elected to Congress in 1976, is in line to succeed longtime colleague Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., who died Monday.

The appointment is expected to be made the week of Feb. 22.

Democrats will make the decision in a process that begins with those on the subcommittee naming Dicks the new chairman. That selection must be approved by a House Democratic Caucus committee and sent to the entire caucus for confirmation. It could all be done the same day.

Dicks, a native of Bremerton, has championed the interests of Boeing well enough and long enough to be dubbed by some as the ‘congressman from Boeing.’ That perception is what fuels analysts to see his appointment as the tipping point in the competition.

Northrop Grumman has also benefitted from Dicks’ presence on the panel and issued a congratulatory statement earlier this week.

“Should Congressman Dicks be appointed to chair the HAC-D (House appropriations committee for defense), we would look forward to continuing to work with him on the important issues of defense and national security, and he would most certainly have our full support,” Randy Belote, Northrop’s vice president of strategic communication, said in a prepared statement.

As the acting chairman, Dicks has spoken with representatives of both aerospace firms and assured them he’ll be even-handed in his new seat.

“I have to be fair to all parties. My position in this is well known,” he said.

Both aerospace companies contribute to Dicks’ campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This year, so far, Boeing and its executives have donated $10,500, which is the most of any corporation. Northrop has given $5,000.

This is the Air Force’s third try at awarding a contract to replace its aging KC-135 aerial refueling tanker fleet.

In the previous two rounds, Boeing competed against duo Northrop Grumman and EADS. That’s what’s expected again when final requirements are issued Feb. 23 or soon after.

Boeing offered the Air Force a tanker based on its Everett-built 767 jet in the last contest. The Air Force, however, initially selected the duo’s larger KC-30 tanker, based on an Airbus A330 airplane. The Pentagon halted the contract after government auditors found flaws in the contest after Boeing issued a challenge.

Northrop may not compete this time. Company leaders contend draft requirements issued last fall unfairly favor Boeing’s smaller aircraft. If they are not substantially changed, the duo may sit it out.

“What I hear from the Defense Department is that there will not be big changes,” Dicks said.

While Dicks said the best outcome is if there are two bids, “I am not going to do anything to encourage them to compete. We’ve got to see what happens.”

Should Boeing be the only bidder, then the Pentagon needs to “sharpen its pencil” in working out contract terms, he said.

That may not please Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, Northrop’s loudest backer in Congress, or John McCain, R-Arizona, who helped scuttle the first contract award that went to Boeing.

Dicks doesn’t see them protesting.

“I think they will all accept this,” he said. “We’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to get this thing moving.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623, jcornfield@heraldnet.com.