Nothing has exposed the ethical quagmire of Washington politics more thoroughly than the Air Force's misguided effort to update its aging fleet of refueling tankers. While still unresolved, this unsavory scandal has muddied the reputations of everyone involved. The Air Force was tainted by a corruption investigation. Manufacturing giant Boeing got caught rigging a bid. The Democratic Party and its presidential hopefuls have resorted to supporting wasteful spending of tax dollars, supposedly in defense of jobs. Even the onetime hero of this saga, likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain, has suffered another dent in his reputation.
It looked as though the Air Force had finally made a decision recently when it picked the European maker of Airbus jetliners to build 179 badly needed tankers. The loser for the $40-billion contract was domestic manufacturer Boeing, which complained bitterly and filed a formal protest Tuesday. Yet Boeing has only itself to blame. It could have had the tanker contract five years ago except for one little problem: It was caught cheating.
In 2003, the Air Force said it would lease 100 tankers from Boeing, a decision that was quickly denounced for its exorbitant cost. The Congressional Budget Office called the lease proposal "significantly more expensive than a direct purchase" of new tankers.
As was soon revealed, there was an explanation for the exorbitant cost. A former Air Force official who negotiated the contract, Darleen Druyun, later took a job with Boeing. Under investigation, she admitted conspiring with Boeing to inflate the cost. The deal was thrown out, Boeing paid a $615-million fine and both Druyun and a Boeing executive went to prison.
And who was the hero for exposing that scandal? McCain. He had led the investigation, building upon a reputation as a crusader against the corrupting influence of lobbyists. After the recent Air Force decision, Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared to cede the high ground to McCain by arguing that Boeing should have been chosen to protect American jobs, never mind its past corruption or weak bid.
Then it was revealed that several key advisers now working on McCain's presidential campaign had lobbied on behalf of Airbus maker European Aeronautic Defense & Space. It was the second time in recent weeks that McCain was revealed to have closer ties to lobbyists than he has claimed. Now Democrats are able to cast McCain's expose of Boeing as bias in favor of EADS, never mind the facts.
Like Boeing, McCain has only himself to blame for the hit on his reputation. He allowed his campaign to be linked to the tanker-bidding process. It's too bad because with the political tinkering, replacement of a 50-year-old tanker fleet that is literally falling apart in a time of war will be delayed again.
Even the Democrats' protectionist arguments have been discredited. The winning bid is a joint project by the Airbus maker and U.S.-based Northrop Grumman. The tankers would be assembled in Alabama, creating thousands of American jobs.
Independent reviews of the bid process say this time the Air Force got it right, picking the best product for both the military and taxpayers. That is how it should work with so much on the line. Yet when you mix billions of dollars, lobbyists and Congress, the outcome is predictable. Shame on everyone involved in this mess.