WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain thundered to a deserted Senate and an inattentive nation: "Even in the middle of a war, a war of monumental consequences and with no end in sight, the Appropriations Committee still is intent on using the Department of Defense as an agency for dispensing corporate welfare."
Tucked into the Defense appropriations bill, McCain's aides discovered an immense helping of corporate pork. Without a hearing and unrequested by the Pentagon, a $30 billion sweetheart deal enriches the economically distressed Boeing Co. under the guise of fighting the war against terrorism.
The Air Force would lease 100 of Boeing's 767 airliners and return them 10 years later to the airplane manufacturer, with the U.S. taxpayer paying for conversion to military tankers and reconversion back to civilian airliners. Sen. Phil Gramm, McCain's sidekick in pork-busting, was awed: "I do not think, in the 22 years I have been here, I have ever seen anything to equal this."
The mighty appropriators, preferring to operate in the dead of the night without public debate, silenced critics by agreeing to an amendment giving the president authority to kill the lease deal. But the McCain-Gramm amendment is likely to be removed in the Senate-House conference on the Defense bill this week, then rubber-stamped by lawmakers anxious to get home for Christmas.
McCain's claim that the Boeing deal is "the envy of corporate lobbyists from one end of K Street to the other" is valid. Conversion of the 767s will cost the government $1.5 billion, plus another $1.2 billion to build hangars. Although such aircraft last 30 or 40 years, the 100 planes must be reconverted and returned to Boeing after 10 years. Total cost to the taxpayer: $30 billion.
A straight purchase would be far cheaper for the government but not as sweet for Boeing. Moreover, a "Buy America" provision prevents the government from buying cheaper Airbus aircraft. The price tag amounts to 20 percent of the cost of the Air Force's 60 top priorities, which do not include tankers. Nevertheless, the Senate Appropriations Committee stealthily added the tanker lease to the House-passed Defense bill.
After his staffers discovered it, McCain asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over lunch about the Boeing lease. Never heard of it, said Rumsfeld. Yet, James Roche, the secretary of the Air Force, wrote Boeing backers: "I strongly endorse beginning to upgrade this critical warfighting capability."
Roche declined two requests by me to reply to questions that his policy aide could not answer. Was Rumsfeld kept in the dark by Roche? Why were tankers left off the 60-item wish list? Why did Air Force public affairs, when asked for the service's position, say "no comment"? How can Roche endorse it when the Office of Management and Budget says it is still working out the government's position?
The overriding answer to such questions is Boeing's distress. After it lost the rich Joint Strike Fighter contract to Lockheed Martin, the Sept. 11 attacks depressed the market for the 767. The leasing deal, crafted behind closed doors by the appropriators, was presented to the Air Force bill as a fait accompli. Secretary Roche, a career naval officer who went to work for Northrup Grumman, snapped it up. Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex proved prophetic.
While senators from the state of Washington once were referred to as the "Senators from Boeing," the company now has employees in 33 states. McCain and Gramm were joined in the debate only by McCain's fellow Arizonan, Sen. Jon Kyl. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington let the truth slip out. "It is in our national interest," she declared, "to keep our only commercial aircraft manufacturer healthy in tough times." That's corporate welfare.
Murray concluded by urging colleagues to support the lease with a plea to "remember the men and women who are serving the country." She did not note that it would take many years before the 100 Boeing 767s can be used by the Air Force. Nor did she mention that the Senate appropriators have quietly shuffled the Defense bill, shifting $4.3 billion in military spending that President Bush wants now to homeland security funds that he doesn't need until later.