Air Force Deal with Airbus Enrages Congress
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. Air Force is under attack, from labor unions, much of Congress and opponents of free trade. They're all angry over the Air Force's decision to buy $40 billion worth of airplanes that are largely French-built. Last week the Air Force awarded the European company EADS and its American junior partner Northrop-Grumman the contract to replace nearly 180 aging refueling airplanes. Those are flying gas stations that other military aircraft depend on. The company that lost the deal, Boeing, can still appeal the decision. In the meantime, Boeing is letting its friends fight the battle on its behalf. In this first of two stories, NPR's Guy Raz reports on how Congress is reacting.
GUY RAZ: Thirteen men and two women sit on the House appropriations subcommittee on defense. These members of Congress control the flow of money into the Pentagon, in short, they can turn off the taps. And so it was no surprise on Wednesday, that the Air Force's top weapons buyer rushed to Capitol Hill to defend a very, very unpopular decision. Here's a sample of the prevailing views on that committee.
Congressman DAVID HOBSON (Republican, Ohio): As far as I'm concerned, Northrop-Grumman's a front for the French.
Congressman NORMAN DICKS (Democrat, Washington): I just think this thing is totally unfair. I think the Air Force has made a big mistake.
Congressman TODD TIAHRT (Republican, Kansas): ...choosing a French tanker over an American tanker doesn't make sense to the American people, and it doesn't make any sense to me.
RAZ: The voices of Congressman David Hobson, Norman Dicks, and Todd Tiahrt.
Sue Payton, the Air Force weapons buyer who signed off on the deal, insisted that the Air Force only evaluated the merits of each plane, and the better plane, she says, was the Airbus. Here's an exchange she had with Florida Congressman Bill Young.
Congressman BILL YOUNG (Republican, Florida): How many jobs would be created outside of the United States?
Ms. SUE PAYTON (Air Force weapons buyer): Job creation, location of assembly and manufacturing, were not part of this evaluation criteria according to the law.
RAZ: As Payton went on to explain, there's a 75-year-old law called the Buy America Act. It's supposed to encourage government agencies to buy goods and services from American companies, and a lot of members of Congress cited this law when expressing their anger. Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt even offered a wry prediction.
Congressman TIAHRT: If we were to compete Air Force One today, it would go to a foreign manufacturer.
RAZ: Tiahrt's attempt at a joke may not be that far from the truth. In fact, when the president's plane, Air Force One, is due for replacement, there's a good chance that Airbus will bid to build it and possibly even win. As Sue Payton explained, many of the same members of Congress now railing against the Air Force also voted to give countries like France and Germany and Britain and Spain and several others special exemptions from the Buy America Act.
In other words, under the law, France and all the other European countries who own a stake in Airbus are for practical purposes basically considered part of the American industrial base. So when it comes to a competition between a French company and an American one, well at least under the law, they might as well both be American.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.