Media frenzy and political hyperbole may make you believe political adversaries are always at each others’ throats. Not so. This is a story of political clout resulting from “stalwart” GOP Senator Thad Cochran, “Blue Dog” Democrat Congressman Gene Taylor, and “liberal” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus pulling in tandem.
As the BP oil spill decimates the Louisiana coast and the Port of New Orleans continues to suffer from Hurricane Katrina, Northrop Grumman announced it will close its Avondale Shipyard just north of New Orleans. That’s 5,000 jobs eradicated from Louisiana’s already struggling coastal economy.
Some will move to Northrop Grumman’s shipyard in Pascagoula as it takes over Avondale’s contracts. More importantly, Pascagoula and its thousands of jobs will survive while Avondale and its jobs will die.
A good business case can be made for Northrop to consolidate shipbuilding activities in Pascagoula, not Louisiana. But, folks, that’s not what really matters when it comes to multi-billion dollar Navy shipbuilding contracts. What matters most is the political clout of the state wherein the shipyard is located.
Generally, shipbuilding requests are submitted by the Navy as part of a multi-year shipbuilding plan. Through this process Ray Mabus, as Secretary of the Navy, can influence the inclusion, priority, and timing of the construction of various vessels.
Gene Taylor as chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee has sway over all ship building authorizations.
Once authorized, shipbuilding projects must be funded. Thad Cochran as the ranking Republican member of the Subcommittee on Defense of the Senate Appropriations Committee has sway over all shipbuilding funding requests.
In plainer language, all three men are influential leaders that those who want to get ships built work hard to make happy.
Of course, for Taylor and Cochran, this is part of their mission – to represent the interests of their citizens and communities. Mabus is less able to take sides. But, Navy secretaries inevitably find ways to do just that, as John Dalton of Texas did during base closure hearings in 1995. Kingsville, Texas, supporters wanted the Naval Air Station in Meridian closed. Dalton, despite concerns by the Navy, testified for closure, spawning an extraordinary event – Chief of Naval Operations Jeremy Boorda, sitting next to Dalton, said he felt “uncomfortable” with the closure recommendation. Meridian survived.
Politically and ideologically askew, still Cochran, Taylor, and Mabus form a powerful tandem pulling for Mississippi’s important shipyard. It would have been extraordinary for Louisiana to overcome, or Northrop to ignore, this tandem.
Maybe this tandem thing explains why former Senator Trent Lott, not a Mabus ally, was front row at his swearing-in ceremony.