There isn’t much mystery about who will be the next chairman of the House appropriations defense subcommittee. The new chairman will be Congressman Norm Dicks, who has earned the job by virtue of his seniority, expertise and tireless support of the Democratic Party. Dicks was elected to Congress in 1976, which means he has served in the lower chamber almost as long as Murtha, who was first elected in 1974. But despite the fact that they both had served in Congress for over three decades and were only eight years apart in age, Norm Dicks seems like he hails from a different generation than Mr. Murtha. His style is more open, his views are more transparent, and — partly as a result — he has attracted much less controversy.
The different styles may have less to do with the two men’s personalities than their districts. Mr. Murtha’s 12th Congressional District in southwestern Pennsylvania was economically depressed and demographically aged, reflecting the decline of its indigenous coal and steel industries. Murtha used his chairmanship of the defense subcommittee to funnel money into the district, but critics called his efforts wasteful because southwestern Pennsylvania isn’t a logical place to locate military bases or defense plants. Norm Dicks represents a very different kind of place — Washington’s 6th Congressional District — that encompasses most of the Olympic Peninsula. The economy there is based first and foremost on the Navy’s sprawling Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, but there is also a mix of fishing, lumber, manufacturing and service jobs that make it a more prosperous place. Because the naval base bulks so large in the local economy, Rep. Dicks knows that robust defense spending will automatically translate into benefits for his constituents. So he doesn’t have to invent reasons for sending money to his district, the way Mr. Murtha did.
By all accounts, Murtha and Dicks worked well together on the subcommittee. They were both moderate Democrats who supported a strong defense, and the voters in their respective districts liked them that way. It’s not likely a liberal could have won election from either district; in fact, Murtha’s district may well go Republican now that he has left the stage. Dicks appears to have a safe seat, but he will be careful to avoid the kind of controversy that Mr. Murtha attracted with his schemes for using defense money to prop up the home-state economy. On the other hand, nobody should expect Mr. Dicks to soften his support for Boeing, which is the biggest private-sector employer in the state of Washington. Although Boeing’s main manufacturing facilities lie outside the 6th District, Mr. Dicks has always been a big supporter of Boeing programs, in part because he is a Democrat and the Boeing workforce is thoroughly unionized.
Unlike some other members of his party, though, there is nothing cynical or detached about Norm Dicks’ support of labor. He is a passionate supporter of the American worker, of American manufacturing, and of American exports. What that means in practical terms is that the House defense appropriations subcommittee will no longer be a place where “dual sourcing” of the Air Force’s future aerial refueling tanker is likely to get a hearing. Mr. Murtha advanced some reasonable arguments for why buying both Boeing and Airbus tankers at a faster rate made budgetary and operational sense, but Mr. Dicks isn’t likely to ever embrace those arguments. On most other defense issues, the subcommittee will see little change with the passing of Mr. Murtha, because past positions reflected a careful balancing of member concerns. But the subcommittee’s operating style will probably shift significantly, with more emphasis on openness and less energy devoted to imaginative ideas for spending defense dollars on improbable projects.
Find Archived Articles: