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House panel votes to restrict possible changes to Air Force One design

The Hill logo The Hill 3 days ago Ellen Mitchell
a man wearing a suit and tie: House panel votes to restrict possible changes to Air Force One design © Getty Images House panel votes to restrict possible changes to Air Force One design

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted to require congressional approval for changes to the Air Force One presidential aircraft's paint scheme and interior design that have been cheered by President Trump.

The amendment was approved 31-26 during the panel's markup of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Offered by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the chairman of the panel's seapower subcommittee, the amendment would require the Trump administration to OK with Congress any "work relating to aircraft paint scheme, interiors and livery" before it takes place.

Courtney said his provision refers to the Air Force One replacement contract, a $3.9 billion, fixed-price deal the Air Force signed with Boeing in July 2018 to design, modify, test, certify and deliver two 737 planes by the end of 2024.

He argued that the contract has language that allows the fixed price to be "almost rendered moot in terms of just additional add-ons" and that his provision would help prevent any cost overruns on "less essential items regarding the paint and interior decorating" of the plane.

"Additional paint can add weight to the plane, additional fixtures inside the plane can also add cost and delays to the delivery of the plane," Courtney said in presenting his amendment.

Trump has said he hopes to change the paint job on new Air Force Ones, forgoing the blue-and-white scheme - designed by President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy - for a red, white and blue color scheme.

Trump told CBS News anchor Jeff Glor in July 2018 that the redesigned aircraft is "going to be the top of the line, the top in the world, and it's going to be red, white and blue. Which I think is appropriate."

"I said, 'I wonder if we should use the same baby blue colors.' And we're not," the president said.

But Courtney warned that even seemingly small changes to the plane can quickly add up.

He pointed to a now-rescinded no-bid contract given to Boeing for nearly $25 million to replace the refrigeration system for the existing fleet of two Air Force Ones, "even though, by the time that would be installed, the shelf life of those planes would be about three to four years."

Lawmakers had asked then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to look into the matter, and she shortly thereafter canceled the deal.

"As we saw with the refrigeration, this is not just speculation, this is actually a trend that we unfortunately have to keep an eye on," Courtney said.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) opposed the amendment, saying it "looks like an attempt to just poke at the president."

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, argued that if Trump wants to change "iconic" look of Air Force One, Congress "ought to have a say about it."

"Personally I think we ought to stay with what we have. ... If somebody wants [fixtures] to be gold plated, come back here and tell us why it ought to be that way," Garamendi said.

Seapower subcommittee ranking member Rob Wittman (R-Va.) offered his own amendment to strike Courtney's language from the NDAA, arguing such cost controls were already in place, but that provision was voted down.

Courtney pressed that Congress is "not handcuffing the Air Force and Boeing into exactly the same version of the plane that was the Air Force one that is being replaced. There is some flexibility in there in terms of making some modifications, but ... that does not require over and above spending."

A final decision on the planes' paint color and design isn't due until 2021, making it possible that it won't be changed if Trump fails to win reelection next year.

Should Trump win another term, he may or may not fly on the finished aircraft. The Air Force currently slates the first plane to be finished by September 2024, though major military projects such as this tend to go past the scheduled end date.

Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the included amendment is "really not trying to poke the president" but "simply trying to exercise our oversight responsibilities to try to save the taxpayers money."

"As I understand it these planes are not even going to be delivered until late 2024, 2025. This president is not going to fly on this plane under any circumstances," Smith said.

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