WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks is all set to retire after 36 years in Congress. But the Bremerton Democrat has hardly had a chance to slack off in his final days in office.
Before it was canceled at the last minute, Dicks — the top Democrat in the House Appropriations Committee — was to make a tour of Superstorm Sandy-damaged areas in New Jersey and New York last week as an emergency $60.4 billion spending request moved through Congress.
And with President Obama and congressional Republicans still dickering over an accord on tax increases and budget cuts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, Dicks expects to stay busy right up until his 18th term wraps up at noon Jan. 3.
Only then will Dicks conclude his stint as the third-longest-serving member of Congress from Washington and one of the delegation’s most influential members ever.
It’s a career that began in 1977 in the era of such powerful figures as the late Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson of Washington. It ends at a time when the fractious conservative House caucus has helped turn politics into a constant loop of brinkmanship.
“Congress has not always been this way,” Dicks lamented during an interview last week in his Husky purple-and-gold office near the House Gallery. “This place is much more toxic.”
One momentous sign of a changed Congress is the current voluntary ban on earmarks, federal grants and contracts doled out by individual lawmakers.
Earmarks were a source of influence for Dicks, who steered tens of millions of federal dollars to government agencies, private companies and nonprofit groups supporting a wide array of projects across the state, including environmental restoration, national-parks improvements and downtown renewal.
A member of the powerful Appropriations’s Defense Subcommittee, he also worked to fund weapons systems and other defense contracts, and to modernize military installations in his 6th Congressional District and beyond.
In 2010, Dicks grudgingly agreed to then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey’s prohibition on no-bid contracts for private companies. Both the House and the Senate have expanded that into a blanket ban on earmarks for now.
“I think earmarks are a thing of the past. It will be hard to bring them back,” Dicks said. “I still think it’s wrong. Congress should have the power of the purse.”
At 72, Dicks still exudes the coiled vigor of a onetime University of Washington football player, all head and shoulders, no neck. But he has health issues, including numbness and spinal problems, that partly prompted his decision to step down.
Dicks, a moderate Democrat, built a particularly strong environmental record, including on such issues as the health of the Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the fate of gray wolves and other threatened species, cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation and preservation of wilderness areas.
He helped keep Elwha River restoration on track, securing a total of $335 million over the years to remove two dams that had blocked salmon passage on the Olympic Peninsula river for 100 years.
Economic development was another focus. The downtowns of Tacoma and Bremerton owe their revival in large part to his skill at rustling up federal dollars. Tacoma’s refurbished Union Station and the $25 million Norm Dicks Government Center in Bremerton are just two examples.
So, too, are Boeing plants in Everett and elsewhere in the Puget Sound area that are gearing up to deliver the first of 179 refueling tankers for the Air Force.
For more than a decade — amid two voided contracts and a procurement scandal that sent a Boeing executive and a Pentagon official to prison — Dicks pushed, coaxed and maneuvered to snare the $35 billion deal for Boeing over its rival, EADS North America. Boeing is expected to be churning out the aircraft for the next 15 years.
Had Boeing not won, Dicks said with a grin, “I might still be here” instead of retiring.
In 2009, Dicks and six other lawmakers were the target of an investigation by a House ethics committee over whether they steered millions of dollars in earmarks to client companies of the defense-lobbying firm PMA Group in return for campaign cash.
The lawmakers were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the Justice Department subsequently indicted PMA founder Paul Magliocchetti for laundering campaign contributions. Magliocchetti, who went to prison, was a heavy personal donor to Dicks’ campaigns.
Dicks said he’d rather not have the ethics shadow over his name. He said, “I never made a single decision in my whole career based on a campaign contribution.”
Over the years, Dicks has reversed his stance on some key issues. He was an early supporter of the 2003 Iran invasion, but belatedly admitted he ignored prewar intelligence refuting claims that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons. His support for the war in Afghanistan has waned, and he now wants to pull U.S. troops out faster than Obama’s timeline calls for.
Dicks’ position on social issues has evolved as well. He voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a woman and a man. He considered President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of tacitly allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the miliary “about as far as we could go at the time.”
Dicks has grown more emphatic in supporting gay rights, and now favors repealing the federal ban on gay marriage.
He said he once might have liked to have served in the Senate, as had Magnuson, his political mentor whom he worked for as an aide before running for Congress.
Dicks always explained his decision to forgo a Senate bid by saying his seniority gave him just as much clout in the House. But he admits there was a political calculation as well.
“I would have had a difficult primary as a pro-defense Democrat,” he said.
Dicks plans to work after leaving Congress. Ex-lawmakers are barred from lobbying the House or the Senate for one year. But they can have immediate contacts with the White House and federal agencies.
Dicks said he’ll take his time mulling his options, but said he may join a foundation or board or do environmental-consulting work. He said he is particularly keen to tackle ocean acidification, chemistry changes in marine waters caused by carbon-dioxide emissions and other pollution.
Until then, his wife, Suzie, will keep her job as the general secretary of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. The couple own a waterfront home in Belfair, Kitsap County, overlooking Hood Canal. Dicks said he has not decided how he will split his time between Washington state and Washington, D.C.
Dicks said the state’s interests will be in good hands, with Sen. Patty Murray a top Democratic leader and Rep. Adam Smith, of Tacoma, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
State Sen. Derek Kilmer, Gig Harbor, will succeed Dicks, continuing the Democrats’ 50-year hold on the 6th District seat.
“I’ve had a very good run,” Dicks said. “I didn’t want to stay too long.”
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