The Magazine

Democrats for Boeing

The truth about the tanker deal.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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On March 5, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel, John Murtha, summoned Air Force officials to explain their decision to award the contract to Airbus. The hearing was a circus of accusations and I-told-you-so's, with mostly Democratic lawmakers lecturing top Air Force officials on how they should have reached their decision. Through it all, the service's top acquisition official, Sue Payton, stuck to her guns, repeatedly telling the bitter lawmakers she had adhered strictly to contracting laws and that, in the end, the Northrop Grumman/EADS team had "brought their A-game."

It was Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who lathered on the criticism of McCain, blaming him for outsourcing American defense business, delaying the Air Force's tanker replacement, and costing the United States a purported 40,000 jobs.

"Because of the individual in the other body stopping what the Air Force and this committee agreed to is [sic] costing billions of dollars, and we're at a point where we don't know how long it's going to take to get these [KC-135s] out of the air," Murtha whined, blaming McCain instead of the Air Force or Boeing for the entire fiasco.

Despite the winners' claim that 25,000 new American jobs will be created by the deal and that about 60 percent of the plane will be made in the United States, both Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the award and hinted that McCain is to blame. And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi threw her own political grenade at the Republican nominee.

"Senator McCain intervened, and now we have a situation where contracts may be--this work may be outsourced," she said.

As usual, McCain is refusing to budge, reminding the public that the earlier Air Force deal he fought was rotten and that his dogged exposure of it saved the government money. What's more, if the Democrats are campaigning on ethical purity, how ironic is it that they would have parochialism and pressure from unions trump the fair and lawful competitive bidding that produced the Airbus win?

"I intervened in a process that was clearly corrupt," McCain said at a campaign event in early March. "That's why people went to jail. That's why the Government Accountability Office said that I saved the taxpayers over $6 billion."

On March 11, Boeing filed a formal protest of the Northrop Grumman/EADS award to the GAO, which handles such acquisition challenges, citing "irregularities" that "placed Boeing at a competitive disadvantage." So, now there's political hay to be made over the issue of lost jobs and "outsourcing" while the auditors pore over Boeing's complaint--a process that is likely to play out through the November election. Democrats will try to damage McCain's prospects in "red" states like Kansas--where the Boeing tanker was to be assembled--and Missouri--where the Boeing division that designed the tanker is headquartered--by waving the bloody shirt of exported jobs.

As defense budget watchdog and Capitol Hill veteran Winslow Wheeler said last week of the upcoming political battle: "If Boeing wants to go down the road in Congress, we're in for a real food fight. Boeing has 40 states involved in the 767 contracting; Northrop Grumman has 49. That's not going to be a pretty thing to watch."

Christian Lowe is managing editor of military.com.