With the death of Rep. John Murtha on Monday, Rep. Norm Dicks is likely to become chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending — gaining power to direct the biggest discretionary purse in the federal budget.

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WASHINGTON — With the death of Rep. John Murtha on Monday, Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks is likely to become chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending — gaining power to direct the biggest discretionary purse in the federal budget.

Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Marine turned Iraq war critic, died at 77 after developing an infection after gallbladder surgery. He wielded considerable clout as the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee and had been assailed for prolific earmarking to major campaign contributors.

Dicks now is the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, where the two had served together for 31 years. The House Democratic Caucus will appoint the new chairman, and Dicks is likely to get the seat.

The new post would put Dicks, 69, of Bremerton, in charge of a subcommittee that will spend some $650 billion in fiscal 2010.

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That’s half of the total discretionary budget controlled by the House Appropriations Committee.

Dicks has been a fierce supporter of Boeing, and the company and its employees have topped his list of campaign contributors over the past two decades, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Dicks is chairman of the Appropriations interior and environment subcommittee, where he has worked to increase funding for national parks and the U.S. Forest Service. He would have to give up that post to take the defense job, but would remain on the interior and environment panel.

The appointment would intensify the spotlight on Dicks’ track record on earmarks — spending on projects requested by individual lawmakers.

Dicks, Murtha and James Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat also on the panel, were investigated last year by the Office of Congressional Ethics over $137 million in contracts they directed to defense companies that had hired a lobbying firm, PMA Group, founded by a former subcommittee staffer.

The ethics office dropped the probe in December without taking action. The House ethics committee is conducting its own investigation, although the ethics office recommended that review be dropped, too.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, said Murtha was almost without peer in the volume of earmarks he gave out.

While Dicks isn’t in the same league, Ellis said, he’s known for channeling plenty of earmarks back to his district.

“I don’t really foresee a huge change” under Dicks’ leadership, Ellis said.

In an interview Monday, Dicks vigorously defended earmarks, saying the process has become more transparent and accountable. For instance, members of Congress are instructed to disclose earmarks they request. But large numbers still go unreported through semantics sleight of hand and other loopholes.

In addition, Dicks said, any federal agency is supposed to have veto power over earmarks directed for its benefit — such as when a company receives a contract to supply unwanted equipment to the Pentagon. By definition, earmarks are spending that an agency has not requested.

The reforms were ordered by Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. Dicks said he supported the changes.

“We have changed the rules on earmarks … to save taxpayers’ money,” Dicks said.

Ellis said that, even with the new rules, earmarks still can serve “as Petri dish for corruption” by linking campaign donations with federal contracts.

Dicks would not discuss his priorities as chairman, calling it premature. But he did single out private contractors working in Afghanistan and Iraq as fertile sources for paring back on both scale and waste.

Dicks called Murtha a patriot with special concern for combat troops. The two have traveled together extensively over the years, most recently to Afghanistan in November.

Murtha “liked to get out in the field. That was one of his greatest strength as chairman,” Dicks said. “I have lost a great friend.”

The Associated Press

contributed to this story.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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