Callaghan: Boeing has long used its clout to ground bills in Legislature




It’s No. 51 on the “Jacobsen and Metcalf Laws of Parliamentary Democracy.”

“If your bill is in trouble for no discernible reason, big timber is against it. If your bill dies for no discernible reason, Boeing is against it.”

The rule dates itself a bit when it suggests there is such a thing as big timber in Washington state anymore. There isn’t. So let’s bring it up to date by changing the first half of the law to read “high technology.” But as we will see, there is no reason to change the second half. As it was when these laws were collected by former state Sen. Ken Jacobsen and former local government lobbyist Jim Metcalf, Boeing remains the state’s most-powerful bill killer.

And when you’re that big, you don’t have to act like the little people by testifying at committee meetings or taking public positions. (See Law No. 17: “You need public support for a bill, but you don’t need public testimony,” with my corollary, “If you’re Boeing, you need neither.”)

Boeing (and now high tech) instead makes phone calls and, only sometimes, demands private meetings behind the closed doors of governors’ and legislative leaders’ offices.

A sudden death

The latest proof of Law 51 came in the days leading up to the March 13 deadline for House bills to pass the House and Senate bills to pass the Senate. That’s when a bill with broad support that had passed out of committee with just one negative vote never came up for action on the House floor.

Among the supporters were both Democrats and Republicans, both liberals and conservative, both the far left and the far right.

House Bill 1771 would have regulated the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” affectionately known as drones. The bill first would require a police agency to get approval before buying and operating a drone. Local police agencies would need city council or county board approval; state police agencies would need legislative approval and the public would get to play.

Then, before it could use the drone to spy — sorry, I mean conduct surveillance — the agency would need a search warrant. If the search collected information on people who were not part of the warrant, that evidence would have to be destroyed.

Once the bill cleared the House Committee on Public Safety, it had been softened to satisfy concerns of law enforcement while maintaining the privacy and civil liberties protections sought by sponsors.

And then it died.

The excuse was that a lengthy and fruitless attempt to find votes for a bill to impose universal background checks for all gun purchases ate up too much time. (See Law No. 45: “You always get 40 votes for anything in the House. You play hell getting the last 10.”)

But Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes found a more compelling reason. Boeing was against it. So was the Machinists Union. High tech wasn’t a fan either.

Why? Boeing, it turns out, has a company in Bingen called Insitu that builds drones. And many of the folks who build those drones are members of the Machinists Union. And while the bill didn’t say drones couldn’t be built or flown, the company and the union thought it sent a bad message to the industry.

Since drones are “a burgeoning industry,” Boeing said, the state shouldn’t try to impose rules until the industry has, you know, fully burgeoned. If the bill moved forward, the industry might locate somewhere else and take its jobs with it.

Neither Boeing nor the Machinists expressed these concerns in committee. But surrogates such as Innovate Washington and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International did. Insitu is a “Diamond” member of AUVSI and Boeing is a “Platinum” member.

So HB 1771 is dead and the actual reason might never be known (i.e. indiscernible). Which leaves us with Jacobsen-Metcalf Law. No. 41: “Every legislative action engenders a new conspiracy theory by legislative observers.”