Air raid on Washington

Boeing propositions Congress over China trade vote, and leaves nothing to the imagination.

Published May 6, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

When Boeing Co. chairman Phil Condit wound up his last visit to Washington, in February, with a pep talk to a business group, a little diplomacy seemed in order. Boeing's Seattle engineers were still on strike, grousing about corporate callousness and worried the company would continue to subcontract more jobs to cheaper-labor countries -- say, China, for instance.

Condit didn't have a new money offer for the engineers. But he had one for Congress: If our top elected officials would approve permanent normal-trade status for Beijing, he said, the company would pay for those "aye" votes.

"We are an issues-oriented company,'' the aerospace giant's chairman announced to reporters, in reference to the upcoming China vote. "We try to support people who believe in the kind of issues that we think are important for the United States. So clearly, yes, we will be supporting people that believe in the direction we do.''

The offer didn't need translation. A vote for Boeing's China policy -- as opposed to the cautionary approach urged by labor and human-rights groups -- could be redeemed in campaign contributions. The record-setting bid -- a mass payoff offer to 535 elected officials -- had some observers doing double takes.

"This is a bribe," says Joe Maciariello, a Claremont Graduate University business expert, of Condit's statement. "Unfortunately," adds Aaron Taylor of the Washington watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, "this kind of quid pro quo is standard operating procedure in government. What is unusual is for a company official to speak to the media about it in such explicit terms."

The accepted approach is a little backroom arm-twisting and a quiet promise of political contributions. But with the U.S. having agreed to seek permanent trade approval as a condition for China's entry into the World Trade Organization, billions are at stake as the Clinton administration and American corporations face an intense vote in Congress -- with Condit as the advance man.

He chairs a $6 million China trade campaign on behalf of the formidable U.S. Business Roundtable, representing chief executives from America's biggest corporations lusting after Asian-trade nirvana. Boeing's stake alone is immense. Already the No. 1 U.S. exporter to China, Boeing expects Beijing to order $120 billion in aircraft over the next two decades. To stabilize China's trade status and avoid the now-yearly congressional battle and rights debate that ensues over policy renewal, Boeing and its roundtable members are pulling out all the stops and wallets.

But, with the House debate to begin May 22, the campaign ebbs and flows. Organized labor, so far, has the upper hand persuading a majority of legislators that permanent-trade status is bad news for the American worker. Many legislators are undecided, but can't help notice that U.S. high-tech firms, flush with potential campaign funds, favor the vote. The White House figures it may need to convince only a dozen or so to swing the House vote (218 votes are needed for House passage; the Senate, where passage is likely, is set to begin debate in June).

President Clinton has offered some eleventh-hour inducements, such as a promise of a $22 million Commerce Department monitoring program that includes a "rapid response" team to assure China's trade compliance. Some, such as Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, are predicting no less than the toppling of China's government if the agreement is voted down.

Condit's offer is seen as a desperate long shot -- unless it swishes in. "Boeing's professional government relations people would never make this kind of statement," says waste-watchdog Taylor, and he's apparently correct.

How, exactly, does the company plan to "support" those who back its China policy? "Boeing's practice," says Tim Neale, a Boeing spokesman in the capitol, "is to contribute money to elected officials and to people running for public office whose interests coincide with the company's. All information about Boeing's political contributions is on file with the Federal Election Commission and is public record."

In other words, no comment. FEC records aren't saying much yet, either. It's early in the giving season, and Boeing's China-related contributions won't be surfacing until, perhaps, the next FEC disclosure-reporting period in June.

But the company has been typically generous to members from either party who tend to support Boeing legislative efforts and who also happen to be permanent-trade backers. They include Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., ($7,500 in Boeing PAC donations this election cycle) and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., ($5,500), along with Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., ($4,000) and Majority Whip Dick Armey, R-Texas, ($3,000).

Not among Boeing's $644,000 in soft- and hard-money congressional donations from this election cycle, has gone to Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, who have yet to make up their minds on the vote despite taking a recent White House-promoted trip to China. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., point man for the trade bill opposition, is also not on Boeing's recipient list. Normally supportive of legislators from its home base in the Northwest, Boeing has not sent a donation to Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., either. DeFazio's opinion of the China trade bill? "Our biggest export to China is family-wage American jobs," DeFazio says.

Boeing regularly spreads its political capital around -- it gave out $1.65 million to hundreds of federal candidates in the election off-year 1997-98, for example. Still, having written about Boeing for several decades, I was amused to see its top executive leading the China effort sporting an "easy money" sign. It was, compared to the company's rich traditions of artful persuasion, literally politically incorrect. Boeing's agents once regularly greased the company's deals by slipping millions to Saudi royal families, Japanese government officials and assorted airline potentates -- in a way, making the payoff as much a piece of aerospace history as the well-preserved Red Barn where Boeing was born.

But the dirty deed has always been performed under the cover of darkness, requiring offshore accounts and weighty bags of unmarked bills. It got so out of hand that Boeing factored bribe percentages into its sales estimates. In the post-Watergate 1970s, when the company was accused of violating newly dusted-off ethics laws, Boeing agreed to a U.S. consent decree following allegations it paid $52 million in bribes to foreign governments. Company officials admitted no wrongdoing, but privately argued they had to offer payoffs since their competitors were doling them out, too.

That was also Boeing's excuse in a colorful civil lawsuit still proceeding today on appeals through a U.S. court in Florida. A Canadian airplane-maker has earned a $2.8 million judgment alleging, in part, that Boeing executives approved a $786,000 bribe on the 1989 sale of planes in the Bahamas. A 1993 Bahamian government investigation aided by Scotland Yard concluded that a Boeing sales "consultant" (a dapper, well-connected man about town whose expertise of big jets consisted of having ridden in some) had been paid $1.4 million by Boeing "for the corrupt purpose of passing on a bribe" as part of the deal.

Those influential events say a lot for style and smoke-filled rooms. The argot of the sly deal, the legendary finesse of Condit's skilled forebears, requires he, at most, lean into the noise of a crowded bar and mutter an unrecordable "Something for your favorite charity, Senator?" But a press conference?

"Generally," says watchdog Taylor, "this type of thing is done in a sort of doublespeak that is understood by the parties involved, but vague enough to provide plausible deniability." Condit simply may have "unwittingly broken one of the unspoken rules of the Washington game" -- a case of accidental honesty.

By Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson has covered sex, crime and politics as a reporter and columnist for The Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly. He’s the author of “Seattle Vice.”

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