When U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer met with Boeing CEO James McNerney in his Washington office earlier this month, his message wasn’t subtle.
Luetkemeyer was there to make the case that Missouri was the right place to steer production of Boeing's 777X civilian aircraft. He said he told McNerney he was “excited about the opportunity for the state of Missouri to bid on it.”
“Whatever help we could be at the federal level, we would more than willing to do that,” Luetkemeyer , R-St. Elizabeth, said.
Luetkemeyer isn’t the only Missouri federal lawmaker to vouch for the Show Me State.
Both of the state’s senators – U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – have touted Missouri to Boeing executives. In addition to talking with state and local officials, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said in a statement he’s “made a strong personal pitch to Boeing, both in writing, and in ongoing conversations." (The Boeing plant is in Clay's district.)
And U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said in an interview that she’s been engaged as well – including meeting face-to-face with McNerney.
“I talked about what an ideal fit for production we have for the 777X,” said Wagner, who also wrote a letter to McNerney. “I talked about our capable and reliable workforce, our quality workers and really what a fantastic place St. Louis is to live and to work and to partner.”
The dash for the 777X, of course, started after a machinist union in Washington state rejected a contract offer with Boeing. Entranced by the prospect of thousands of high-paying jobs, at least 22 states – including Missouri – have sought to steer the production their way.
The congressional delegation’s approach is different from that of state and local officials. While the Missouri General Assembly and the St. Louis County Council can promise massive tax breaks to lure the 777X, the Show Me State’s federal delegation is limited to good-old-fashioned encouragement.
Persuasion is one of the few tools in federal lawmakers’ arsenals. After all, they can’t promise specific incentives to encourage companies to move to their states – especially with others in the mix for Boeing. Blunt acknowledged this last Thursday when he told reporters “at the end of the day, the legislature in Jefferson City was the group that really had to decide what that package should look like.”
Blunt added that his and McCaskill’s role amounts to saying “‘we appreciate those Boeing jobs, we appreciate the Missourians that know how to build airplanes.’”
“Our state would be a great place to add some domestic aviation in addition to the incredible success and expertise we brought to military aviation,” said Blunt, referring to the fact that Boeing’s defense headquarters are in St. Louis. “We’re glad to have those Boeing jobs and we’d like to have more.”
McCaskill added the state’s two senators are “working together seamlessly to try to do what we need to do to support the city, county and state efforts in Missouri to get production of this aircraft in St. Louis.”
“I think we’re in a good position to compete,” she added.
Carry that weight
University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire said in this situation, “the greater weight really does go with the state and local government officials.”
Squire said state and local entities “have the power and the resources to offer the inducements that a corporation like Boeing is really interested in.” He said those factors even outweigh congressional seniority – which often plays a role in obtaining federal funds.
“Federal officials or the members of the congressional delegation can help maybe on the margins,” Squire said.
While noting that she doesn’t “have a vote,” Wagner did say she’s talked about the issue with state and local officials. And she said federal lawmakers could give Boeing some insight into the plusses of moving to Missouri.
“We’re certainly able to do a letter and promote the region, talk about our business-friendly environment, our low utility rates, our competitive costs of living and efficient transportation infrastructure,” she said.
And although Luetkemeyer agreed that state and local governments were the main players, he did say federal lawmakers could assist in securing certain funds or grants.
“There may be a situation where the local city or county folks need some infrastructure money or grants,” Luetkemeyer said. “Some of those things may be helpful for us to facilitate. But most of that, as you just alluded to, is basically something the state and local folks are going to have to come together on. And if there’s a place for us to be helpful, then we’re more than willing to do that.”
Squire said that doesn’t necessarily mean the federal charm offense is without reward. A warm relationship between Missouri’s federal lawmakers and Boeing may be helpful for the company’s defense pursuits, he said.
“Boeing is certainly happy to have support in Congress, given the budget situation that certainly everybody in the defense industry faces over the next decade,” Squire said. “But for the most part, members of the congressional delegation are trying to show that they, too, are out there working to bring jobs to their home state – even if they really can’t produce it in the same way that, perhaps, Gov. Nixon’s actions might do.”
Indeed, it’s an open question whether Missouri's incentives are enough. Besides other states’ efforts, Washington state passed a multi-billion dollar incentive package to entice Boeing to stay put in Puget Sound. (Talks between Boeing and the Washington machinist union collapsed on Thursday.)
Still, Wagner concurred with Squire that having a robust line of communication with Boeing – and fostering bipartisan teamwork – are win-wins regardless of the outcome.
“We obviously want to get the business here and the jobs and see this 777X production move here – or even a portion of it,” said Wagner, referring to the possibility that the plane’s wings could be produced here. “We’ll make a case for whatever it is they’d like to grow in our region.”
After talking with McNerney, Luetkemeyer said that Missouri might have a fighting chance.
“I asked the question point blank to Jim McNerney: I said, look, ‘are you just using us as leverage to get a better contract with the machinists union? He said no,” Luetkemeyer said. “He said ‘these guys in Washington tried to call my bluff and I took the Dreamliner to South Carolina. They’re trying to call my bluff again, and I’m taking this plane somewhere else.’”
“From that you can guess that while the tax incentives are really important, this labor piece of this puzzle… is more important than tax packages that are put out there,” he added.
While Missouri lawmakers have made no secret about their desire to move the 777X here, there's no sign that such a public stand is causing friction with members of Washington's congressional delegation.
Blunt and McCaskill said they’ve noticed nothing out of the ordinary with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., or U.S. Sen. Patt Murray, D-Wash. And Luetkemeyer added he's sensed no pushback from U.S. House members from Washington State.
“There are always tensions between states when we’re competing for jobs. But I sense no additional tension than what would be normally expected,” McCaskill said. “None of the senators from Washington has even mentioned anything to me about it since we’ve been back in D.C. this week.”
Cantwell's spokesman Jared Leopold said in an e-mail that he doesn’t know whether the three-term senator has talked about Boeing with Blunt or McCaskill. He did note that the Washington delegation has penned a letter to Boeing.
Wagner quipped that she was “thankful” U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers – a fellow member of House Republican leadership from Washington – is on maternity leave now.
“I would expect them to advocate just as vigorously as I did on behalf of their own districts and regions and constituents,” said Wagner, adding that there hasn't been any noticeable friction between Missouri and Washington's delegations. “That’s what we do. Everybody gets it. At the end of the day, it’s Boeing’s decision. And there are a lot of different factors that weigh into that.
“But we should always put our best foot forward and I don’t think anyone can fault you for being a good, strong advocate for those whom you represent,” she added.
Jo Mannies contributed information to this article.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.