WASHINGTON – Rep. Norm Dicks has been in this position before.
In 1994, the Democrat from Belfair was in line to become the chief spook in the House as chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But Republicans seized control of the House, leaving Dicks and the Democrats in the minority.
Dicks, the longest-serving member of the House ever elected from Washington state, is now in line to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls nearly $1.4 trillion in annual federal sending – everything but Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. There might be no more powerful committee in the House.
But the congressman first needs to get re-elected, and then the Democrats need to avoid a replay of 1994 and overcome an expected Republican surge to retain control of the House.
“I hope it isn’t déjà vu,” Dicks said.
His opponent, Republican Doug Cloud, isn’t impressed that Dicks could become appropriations chairman – he sees the entrenched congressman as part of the problem.
“I don’t believe Norm staying in Congress in any capacity is good for the 6th Congressional District or the country,” Cloud said.
This is the fourth time Dicks and Cloud have met. Cloud has never received more than one-third of the vote in a district that includes much of Tacoma, Bremerton, Kitsap County and the Olympic Peninsula from Grays Harbor to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Dicks grew up in the district he’s represented for 17 terms. His father worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Cloud, an attorney in private practice, was born in Tacoma and grew up in Fife Heights.
Politically, they couldn’t be more different.
As opposed to some Democrats, Dicks is not running away from this session of Congress. He supported the financial bailout and the stimulus bills, which he said helped avoid an economic collapse that would have rivaled the Great Depression. He supported the health care overhaul, pointing out that people opposed Social Security when it was created. He supported Wall Street regulation.
“No matter what happens in this election, we did what we had to do with no help from Republicans,” Dicks said in an interview. “We could’ve had 20 to 25 percent unemployment and food lines.”
Cloud said he is not a member of the t ea party, but he sounds as angry as one.
“We are in historic times here,” Cloud said in an interview. “People are fearing the collapse of the American dream. We are running in quick sand and need a change.”
Cloud said the health care reforms need to be repealed and a competitive private market for health insurance created with the government no longer setting prices and standards. Federal spending needs to be cut and the federal budget balanced. He would oppose “any” tax increase. When it comes to long-term funding of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Cloud said “they aren’t pressing issues.”
Cloud said that after running three previous times, people in the district know him and there is so much anger at Washington, D.C., he has a realistic chance of wining if a Republican tide is running. He also said Dicks is “completely subservient” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“He has lost touch with his district and the country,” Cloud said. “He is in an arrogant, bubble cocoon.”
Dicks ticks off any number of projects and policies that he has delivered to the district, including support for the University of Washington Tacoma and $88 million to replace aging schools at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“We try to listen to concerns people have,” he said.
Dicks is among congressional leaders in earmarking – the controversial but common practice of directing spending to projects not included in the budget. For fiscal year 2010 alone, Dicks sponsored or co-sponsored 60 earmarks totalling $80.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That ranked him 16th among congressional representatives.
Most of his larger earmarks were aimed at defense projects in and around his district, including $13.1 million for ordnance storage pads at Indian Island Navel Reserve, $3.8 million to Gig Harbor’s Progeny Systems for “lightweight torpedo P5U test equipment modernization,” and $2.5 million for the Western Regional Counter-drug Training Center at Camp Murray.
Dicks supported the Democratic plan to cut earmarks in half and to bar earmarks for private companies going forward. He said the earmarks reforms are “at the right point.”
But some Republicans, including Cloud, have been critical of earmarks as an obstacle to fiscal discipline. And Dicks’ skill at securing money for his district has come under scrutiny.
Dicks was one of a handful of congressmen House ethics officials investigated last year for their relationship with the defense lobbying firm PMA.
Dicks secured $27 million in federal spending for four PMA clients. He received $133,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbying firm’s PAC, employees and clients, according to federal campaign reports reviewed by CQ MoneyL ine . Dicks has said the contracts involved legitimate projects in his district that the Navy had approved and that he had done nothing wrong. He was ultimately cleared by the committee.
Over the summer, PMA founder Paul Magliocchetti was indicted for laundering campaign donations, although none of those has been connected to Dicks.
Dicks said he is aware he might end up chairing the Appropriations Committee at a time of shrinking budgets and points out as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee he had cut $7 billion out of the Pentagon budget.
“If I become chairman I will have to restrain spending,” he said.
Steve Ellis, vice president of the congressional watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he is willing to trust Dicks not to roll back the latest earmark reforms, though his group would like to see earmarks eliminated entirely.
“He has been saying the right things, and I am willing to take him at his word,” Ellis said.
Dicks said this year’s election reminds him of the tough campaigns he had in 1980 and 1994.
“We never take anything for granted, and this is the year you’d better not,” he said.
Cloud said he has a different campaign style this time.
“I have tried to show the depth of my feelings more than in the past,” Cloud said.
As of Aug. 1, Dicks had raised nearly $1 million and had almost $643,000 in his campaign account, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Cloud had raised about $39,000 and had $1,400 in the bank.