WASHINGTON — As the old saying goes: When you need friends, it is too late to make them.
It is applicable today, as U.S. defense firms soon could lose two congressional lions who kept the federal cash flowing into their corporate coffers — just as Pentagon budgets are set to shrink.
Retiring House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who holds the same position on the panel’s defense subcommittee, will exit the House chamber for the final time this year. Meanwhile, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the defense subcommittee’s chairman, is locked in a competitive re-election race.
The duo have long been fierce advocates of the Defense Department and the U.S. industrial base. A review of years of political contribution data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows the two, for years, have been among the top recipients of defense contractor-donated campaign cash.
“They’ve always been reliable backers up there [on Capitol Hill],” one industry source said. “Right now, I doubt we’ll lose both this year, but it would be a huge blow. No doubt about it.”
Young’s opponent, former Democratic congressional aide and counsel Jessica Ehrlich, remains in striking distance of the 42-year House veteran.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst and industry consultant, said the loss of Young and Dicks would further the bitter bipartisanship that has stymied the House for nearly a decade.
The two “are products of a more accommodating time in American political history, when compromise was the prevailing value,” Thompson said. “It will be tough to preserve the kind of bipartisan cooperation they exemplified in an increasingly polarized chamber. They were always reasonable and never greedy.”
Not everyone sees it that way, however.
“Dicks didn’t hesitate to use his powerful committee assignment as a source of big gifts for his son,” said the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “As the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, [Dicks] increased federal funding to the Puget Sound Partnership, a nonprofit group where his son, David Dicks, was executive director, from $20 million to $50 million.”
The Environmental Protection Agency later investigated questionable spending by the partnership and forced it to return more than $120,000.
In 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during a public hearing, scolded Young for allegedly blocking a Pentagon budget proposal because the Florida lawmaker wanted to protect a favored defense contractor. Gates questioned why Young’s defense subcommittee would block a plan to move dollars from one program to another, an obstruction Gates claimed would “put American lives at risk.”
Young fired back with a sharply worded letter that some Washington insiders at the time said was the first indication that Gates would step down; he did so several months later.
With Dicks leaving office, it remains unclear who will take over his spot as the ranking member of the full appropriations committee and its defense subcommittee, congressional sources said.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) is the next ranking Democrat on the full panel and could be front-runner for the post. She is the fourth-ranking Democrat on the defense subpanel (including Dicks) but would have to leapfrog Democratic Reps. Pete Visclosky of Indiana and Jim Moran of Virginia to become the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat.
Notably, Ohio and Virginia have a larger defense sector presence than Indiana — so much so that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been running television ads warning of defense spending cuts in three states, including the Buckeye and Old Dominion states.
Committee leadership races will play out next year when the next Congress begins. For now, many in the defense sector are closely monitoring the Florida race.
In the closing weeks of the race, Ehrlich is trying to convince undecided voters that Young has been in Washington too long.
“Before the Buccaneers,” Ehrlich said in a recent ad, referencing the Tampa Bay area’s professional football franchise, which was established in 1976, “[Richard] Nixon was president, disco was on the rise and Bill Young was in Congress.”
She also is making a pitch to the district’s older voters.
“I’m Jessica Ehrlich, and Bill Young is a nice man, but after 42 years in Congress, he’s lost touch,” the Democratic candidate said. “Why else would he vote twice for the [GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul] Ryan budget that ends the current Medicare system? … Seniors pay thousands more each year and the wealthy get more tax cuts.”