He has not been tapped officially for the chairmanship, but House Majority Leader Hoyer has said he expects Dicks, the second-ranking Democrat on the panel, to take over after the death this week of longtime chairman Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
Dicks brings with him strong ties to aerospace giant Boeing Co., which builds many of its largest planes in Everett, Wash., near his district. But while he's known as an unabashed Boeing champion, defense sources said they don't expect his chairmanship to bring about a significant change in defense spending priorities.
After all, Boeing, the country's No. 2 defense contractor, hardly went unnoticed during Murtha's tenure as chairman, which was marked with multibillion-dollar congressional add-ons benefitting Boeing's product line, such as the C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane and the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
"I don't think a whole lot changes," said one defense lobbyist, observing that Dicks' priorities are largely aligned with what Murtha advocated.
But the two lawmakers diverged last year when Murtha fought and lost a battle to split the contract to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force between rival bidders Boeing and a team led by Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS, the European consortium behind Airbus.
Murtha hoped splitting the contract would curtail what he feared would be an endless cycle of challenges to contract awards. Dicks has favored giving the contract to Boeing alone.
The Air Force is expected to release a final request for proposals this month, in anticipation of selecting a contractor this summer. Northrop and EADS already have threatened to pull out of the competition unless there are significant changes made to the draft RFP, which they argue favors the Boeing plane.
Dicks' chairmanship could have a psychological affect on down-and-out Northrop supporters. "You're adding further weight against a Northrop decision to bid," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group.
A Northrop spokesman said the firm enjoys a good working relationship with Dicks.
By law, Dicks cannot say who gets the contract, and he or other lawmakers cannot pressure the Government Accountability Office in deciding any contract protest. But he can try to set funding levels and add conditions or riders to the tanker program in the fiscal 2011 Defense spending bill.
"If the award goes to Northrop/EADS, you can bet there's going to be trouble in the appropriations subcommittee," said Gordon Adams, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director of national security during the Clinton administration. "If the award goes to Boeing, you can bet there won't be."
Meanwhile, Adams says Dicks will lead the subcommittee in the tradition of his predecessor.
"Appropriators are appropriators are appropriators, and it kind of doesn't matter whether it's a [Rep.] Jerry Lewis or a Jack Murtha or a [former GOP Sen.] Ted Stevens or a [Sen.] Daniel Inouye or a Norm Dicks," Adams said. "You have to have a particular frame of mind to be an appropriator. You have to like details, you have to like dealing with the money, and you really have to enjoy earmarks."
In the fiscal 2010 Defense spending bill, Murtha sponsored 23 earmarks worth $76.5 million, according to public disclosures. Dicks obtained 14 earmarks worth $39 million -- a figure likely to swell when he becomes chairman.
Dicks will have to realize that, to be effective, he must share the wealth, as Murtha always did, Adams said. "They all have to make deals and appropriators are the master dealmakers," he added.
The biggest change, however, may be who benefits from those deals.
Dicks, though a close adviser to Murtha as the next-in-line on the panel, will have his own friends and allies.
For the lawmakers who had curried favor and collected chits with Murtha, "that bank has gone bust," said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense.