Streetcar Line

Air Bust?

Rep. Todd Tiahrt calls the kettle black.

By 1.28.10

U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt is a libel-slinging cheap-shot protectionist prevaricator.

Or at least that's what somebody would write about him if that somebody were to sink to the level to which the bad Republican from Boeing, er, I mean from Kansas, sank in a recent column for our friends at Human Events -- who have joined Tiahrt in a despicable jihad against Boeing's competitors for a controversial contract to build Air Force refueling tankers.

But that's too low to sink, so I won't do it. So just take that first sentence as being illustrative of what could have been written, okay?

Instead, I'll just note that Tiahrt made the following accusations against the European company EADS, which partnered with American-based Northrop Grumman Corporation to beat the pants off of Boeing in a fair competition for the tanker in 2008 that was undermined by some of the dirtiest politics ever seen in major federal contracting. First, Tiahrt wrote that what was "deeply concerning" (sic -- NOTE FOR LINGUISTICALLY CHALLENGED CONGRESSMEN: "concerning" is not an adjective) was that "EADS has a long history of corruption and bribery around the globe that has cost thousands of high-paying, high-quality American jobs." Tiahrt endorsed the charge that "bribery is an established part of European corporate and government culture and that EADS has a documented history of bribing foreign officials to sell more planes." He wrote that "EADS is linked to bribery scandals in Canada, Belgium, Syria, Austria, India, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland. Many other allegations have been made but quietly swept away. These bribes, in addition to known illegal subsidies, undercut American companies and have cost thousands of American jobs." And: "Bribery only scratches the surface of the long laundry list of crooked practices by EADS." And he warns against "outsourcing jobs to corrupt foreign companies entangled in illegal activities."

Wow. One would expect -- would one not? -- that anybody making such incredibly strong accusations would provide some evidence thereof, right? Well, I challenge you to look in this pile of Tiahrt manure that Human Events published and find a single shred of evidence to back up the allegations. Just one. Oops. Sorry. Nothing there. Just wild allegations, lacking any demonstrated basis in fact. If congressmen were a species that had any shame, Tiahrt would be so ashamed he would never show his face in polite company again. Ever.

And Rep. Tiahrt should hardly be one to preach about ethics. This is the same Rep. Tiahrt, after all, whose ties with the scandal-plagued PMA defense lobbying firm are being examined right now by the House ethics committee. (Of course an examination is no indication of guilt. It is, however, reason for anyone not utterly uncouth to be at least a little circumspect about launching reckless allegations against others.)

It also is odd that Tiahrt would so rashly attack a company that just located within his own district. So outrageous was his column that the mayor of Wichita, Carl Brewer, felt obliged on Jan. 19 to write to executives of Airbus (an EADS subsidiary) to reassure them "that the leadership of this community view Airbus as a prized corporate citizen."

One wonders if Tiahrt's virulence has something to do with the fact that Boeing has been among his top five campaign donors for every single election cycle this decade. This is the same Boeing that, as was reported by 60 Minutes this month, has made a total hash of an electronic border fence with Mexico. The news magazine reported that in 2006 "Boeing promised to complete the first 28 miles of the surveillance system in just eight months and wire the entire Mexican border in three years." Instead, reported the program, "… after three years and a billion dollars, they are still fiddling with the first 28 miles, with 1,972 to go. And that is just one of the problems." This is the same Boeing that was forced to fire two top executives for corruption involving this very same tanker project. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of Boeing's chairman and led to jail terms for some of those involved. And that was hardly the only scandal to rock Boeing, which has managed to keep its clout despite the scandals through the good fortune of siting its corporate headquarters in the home territory of President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Ahh, yes, it's nice to know that a Republican is allied with the Chicago Way of Messrs. Obama and Emanuel….

Yet Tiahrt has the gall, without producing evidence, without even citing any formal bribery charges against EADS, to write that supposed corruption at EADS should disqualify it from the contract that Boeing itself originally lost due to corruption. That's rich. No, strike that: It's not rich; it's sleazy.

This is important stuff. The tanker contract terms are set to be released next month, for yet another round of this competition that has taken nearly a full decade -- and it is due to shenanigans like Tiahrt's that this nation is seven years behind where it should be in filling the desperate need to replace a tanker fleet that is more than half a century old. As it is, the competition may well not exist: Northrop and EADS may pull out of the competition altogether because the terms have been rigged so heavily to favor Boeing, even after the first, open process found that the Northrop consortium had the better plane. This would be a disaster. It would provide not a scintilla of incentive for Boeing to keep costs down for the American taxpayer, or for it to provide solid value or to do good work on the planes.

Independent analysts confirm that the new criteria include things as stupid as counting toilet capacity as being of the same importance as the rate at which the plane offloads fuel (which of course is a tanker's whole reason for existence). It's an incredibly flawed set of criteria that favors Boeing without much regard for the real needs of the pilots.

The far better solution is for the Pentagon to split the contract, in its first order, so that both Boeing and the Northrop team continue to compete to build the best plane. I do believe I was the first person in a national publication to advocate this idea, and it remains the best solution.

Do read this analyst, James Hasik: After what is manifestly a thoughtful, full, independent analysis, he concludes that "There may be better strategies for tanker replacement than split procurement, but there are clearly worse ones as well." (Read his footnotes, too, for guidance to other articles on this issue that reach the same conclusion.)

And, without any doubt at all, Mr. Hasik concludes that a split buy would be far better than a contract awarded with only one company bidding for it at all: "Given the very plausible threat that Northrop Grumman and EADS might choose not to bid, inducing potential bidders to bid would be primarily useful for, eo ipso, reducing bid prices. The alternative would be a negotiated solution with Boeing, but a solution in which Boeing would have no incentive to offer" good terms to the Air Force.

The refusal of Defense Secretary Bob Gates even to consider a split buy is a serious dereliction of responsibility and of good sense. I have been told that rather than even examining the idea seriously, with dispassion, he has let it be known that those who so much as advocate it are treading on thin ice. This bullheadedness is an outrage at least, if not a sign of something badly and suspiciously amiss.

Meanwhile, what seems to be driving this whole process is the political arm-twisting conducted by congressmen so irresponsible as to sling around scurrilous accusations of "bribery" and other "illegal" activity without offering a shred of evidence thereof. The real scandal is that such irresponsible congressmen are allowed to get away with it -- and that they so pollute the offices they hold in trust for a public that deserves far better.

Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator.       

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.