Having escaped Washington for a few weeks, Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott decided to catch up on some homework Tuesday — of the defense-related variety.
The Newport News Democrat spent part of the afternoon touring W&O Premier, a defense contractor in Portsmouth that manufactures components for Navy ships, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers built and maintained at Newport News Shipbuilding, not far from where the congressman lives.
Scott is the only local member of Congress who does not serve on the House Armed Services Committee, but that doesn't give him a free pass on military and defense, which prop up a significant part of the region's economy.
His sprawling district includes the Newport News shipyard, Fort Eustis and Norfolk Naval Shipyard, plus constituents who work at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton and Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.
"Any representative from Hampton Roads will be spending a lot of time on defense," said Scott, who is enjoying a five-week congressional recess that began in early August.
If Scott wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of defense work, he found the right place in Premier Portsmouth, a subsidiary of W&O, which has locations around the nation. Machinery hummed in the background as he spoke to reporters on the plant floor.
The machinists, sand blasters, welders, fabricators and lathe operators manufacture pipe fittings for seawater piping systems. Working with a copper-nickel alloy, they craft 45-degree and 90-degree elbows and other components, said Bill Duffy, general manager of Premier.
Like other defense contractors, Premier has dealt with uncertainty over military spending. Last year was particularly rough.
"We were able to weather the storm," said Phil Jiannine, W&O branch manager, "but that was really based on our parent company and W&O as a whole being able to absorb the short-term, with the long-term prognosis that it was going to get better."
W&O did have to have cut personnel 5 percent across the organization and that translated into some job losses at Premier. Jiannine's long-term concern is whether deep budget cuts will return in 2016 under the process known as sequestration. A small location like Premier in Portsmouth, which has about 30 skilled laborers, could not afford a downturn in business — especially if employees decide to seek other jobs.
Jiannine pointed to a machinist whom he called one of "the best on the waterfront," and said. "You can do some training. But if you lose your core people, you're not going to get them back."
Scott, like other local members of Congress, fought to include money for the mid-life refueling and overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, a $4.47 billion job that not only means work for Newport News Shipbuilding, but for dozens of smaller companies such as Premier.
"These kinds of businesses are important," Scott said, referring to Premier, "because they remind you of the importance of the timing of work at Newport News shipyard. If you were to skip a refueling, it's businesses like this that might go under."
And if that would happen, "Who would be making these valves? How much would they cost? You don't know. Would they be as good? You don't know."
Jiannine said Newport News Shipbuilding has strict standards, but he's thankful for the business.
"They build nuclear aircraft carriers, man. They got to have what they got to have. We give them what they want. It's not for me to ask 'Why do you need that?' when they're building a nuclear aircraft carrier."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun