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Norm Dicks Picks His Spots, Including When to Exit

18-Term Member Wants Bipartisan Deal-Making to Be Focus of His Legacy

At a time when bipartisan heavyweights are being felled at random and the word compromise is taboo, Rep. Norm Dicks says he is leaving on his own terms.

He will pass on a sour-grapes retirement, such as those of Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who cited frustration with the lack of bipartisanship. He will avoid an electoral defeat such as the ones suffered by Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and John Spratt (D-S.C.), taken out by upstarts.

Instead, the Washington Democrat, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, is leaving amicably at the end of his 18th term, forgoing a chance, albeit slim, to become chairman next year.

“I really just felt it was the right time. I just felt that I didn’t want to be one of the people who either lost or died in office,” he said during a recent wide-ranging interview in his Congressional office. “I just really felt that I had had a good run.”

That is not to say he would not prefer to stick around. Showing off bandages on his hands from recent carpal tunnel syndrome surgery, the 71-year-old said he is troubled by health problems, chiefly a neck injury from his football-playing days at the University of Washington that has been causing numbness.

“I wouldn’t want to be hanging on. I just wouldn’t want to do that,” he said. “I’ve always felt that I want to be able to do this job at full speed every single day, and these things were starting to nag at me a little bit.”

He’ll take time for much-needed therapy, he said, while he works for a few more years and splits time between Washington, D.C., and Washington state.

Still, he has a few parting shots for the chamber he’ll leave behind: Tea party Republicans are “reckless,” he said, for viewing compromise as a bad word. Legislative paralysis in the Senate — where he hoped to end up one day, though it “never felt right” — “is just amazing to me.”

But, Dicks said, all in all, he is fond of his time on Capitol Hill, where he spent his entire professional career. Now, he is thinking about his legacy.

“I want to be remembered for somebody who was bipartisan from the day I walked in here to the day I left. I have always believed that there is nothing of real significance achieved if it isn’t bipartisan,” he said, surrounded by memorabilia of his proudest deals.

There is a CIA Director’s Medal awarding his years of service on the House Intelligence Committee. There is a land claims settlement between the Puyallup Tribe and the City of Tacoma that he helped negotiate in the 1980s and ’90s. And of course a 54-pound salmon he caught on a fishing trip with family, a memento of his work preserving salmon runs in Washington state.

In fact, Dicks has been dealing since before he was sworn in.

A staffer to former Senate Appropriations Chairman Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), he knew before he entered Congress in 1977 that he would have to secure choice subcommittees to have an immediate effect.

Telling one of his favorite stories, he said he introduced a plan to add seats to some Appropriations subcommittees and remove seats from others, so his favored Interior and Environment and Energy and Water Development subpanels would have room for him.

“I’m walking over in the tunnel on the way over, and I hear, ‘Hey, you Dicks?’ I turned around. It was Jack Murtha,” Dicks said of the notoriously gruff, late Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania.

“He says, ‘Who in the hell do you think you are? The first day of this committee, you’re not even sworn into Congress yet and you’re going to come in here and change the size and ratio of the subcommittees?’ And I said, ‘Sir, all four subcommittee chairmen have agreed that it’s a good idea.’ I said, ‘I did do the Appropriations work for Sen. Magnuson.’”

“‘Oh, you’re Maggie’s guy,’” Murtha replied, as Dicks recalls. “‘Oh that’s different. No, I get it, I’m with you. Don’t worry about it. Tell the Senator hello,’” Dicks remembers, his face flushed, laughing riotously.

A member of the Appropriations Committee for his entire 36 years on Capitol Hill, Dicks is best known for bringing home the greenbacks, often in the form of defense contracts for longtime state employer Boeing Co., earning him the nickname “the Representative from Boeing.”

“I was here at a good time because I could do a lot for my district and I did, and I’m proud of every one of the earmarks I’ve offered,” said Dicks, who took over the Subcommittee on Defense gavel when Murtha died.

Having spent his whole career on the Interior subcommittee, Dicks worked to clean up Washington’s Puget Sound and the state’s environment.

And during an earmark ban, he said, it’s even more important to have returned regular order to the committee, a feat he said he regrets Democrats did not accomplish when they were in power; this makes his short list of regrets, along with his votes for Reagan-era tax cuts and the Iraq War.

“It got to be so easy just to say, ‘It’s too hard, we’re not going to have markups because we don’t want to make any tough votes,’” he said. “I just don’t believe in that. I think you’re sent here to make tough votes.”

No doubt, Dicks will have a few more of those before his time in D.C. is done, with spending bills and a busy lame-duck agenda left to go.

But without a re-election campaign to think about for the first time in more than three decades, Dicks is ready to relax and is taking advantage of the light Congressional calendar to do so.

“I’m not big on these recesses. I think we should be here doing the people’s business, but if we’re going to have them and I’m not running, we’ve got a few fishing trips planned,” he said.

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