A blunder by Byrd?

Posted: Dec 05, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd, at age 84, remains the master of parliamentary chicanery in enacting pork barrel legislation. He has demonstrated this in leveraging the war against terrorism to approve billions of dollars worth of pet senatorial projects. This time, however, the old fox may have been too clever by half. Scheduled for consideration by the Senate today (Thursday) is the Defense Department appropriations bill, containing $15 billion in additional spending tied to the terrorist attacks. While this money does not belong in the Pentagon's bill, the funds are legitimately designated for homeland security and aid to New York. But Byrd, as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, has deposited in other appropriations bills pork worth billions that might have been spent fighting terrorism. The snap judgment has been that Bob Byrd has triumphed again. However, even Appropriations Committee colleagues think the master has reached too far. George W. Bush is sticking to his previous promise to veto excessive appropriations. That threat may block the Byrd bundle in the Senate, if a point of order is ruled requiring 60 votes for passage. If not, Bush will veto the bill. Politically, Byrd looks like the loser against the popular president. What has gotten President Bush's back up is the post-Sept. 11 signed agreement by Byrd for $686 billion in federal spending this year. Almost immediately, Byrd started ratcheting up the numbers. How much he wanted or what bill he wanted to use as a vehicle has varied the last several weeks. It ended up with $15 billion extra -- $7.5 billion for homeland security, $7.5 billion for aid to New York -- added to the Defense bill. The administration's position is that Congress has appropriated more than enough for homeland security and New York and that the president can ask for more next year if necessary. Bush considers this a matter of presidential prerogative. He contends it is for him, not Byrd, to determine the government's needs for specified programs. For example: accelerated purchase of smallpox vaccines, hiring 624 additional federal food inspectors, funding Environmental Protection Agency anti-terrorism, and an extra $21 million for White House security. Where's the pork that is Byrd's trademark? Hidden elsewhere. He has planted $14.9 billion more than what the president requested in seven appropriations bills. That is money that could have gone for homeland security funds that Democrats insist is needed and have put in the Defense bill. The $14.9 billion includes $8.3 billion in earmarks that constitute a working definition of pork: special spending not requested by the administration or authorized by Congress but desired by individual senators. The still pending Transportation appropriations bill alone contains 681 earmarks costing $3.2 billion. In the tradition of congressional logrolling, Byrd spreads the wealth around among colleagues. But, as always, he takes care of his West Virginia. In the Transportation bill, the state gets $6.6 million as part of the National Scenic Byways Program. The National Tracing Center facility in Martinsburg, W. Va., gets $3.5 million from the Treasury bill. The Veterans Administration-HUD bill gives $1.5 million to the Appalachian Bible College in Bradley, W.Va., for its student center. Once Byrd decided how he wanted to load the Defense appropriations bill, his committee quickly rubber-stamped it this week. Only on Monday night did he release details. The Senate did not then debate whether the president of the United States or the president pro-tem of the Senate (Byrd) should determine the shape of anti-terrorism spending. Nor did it discuss this year's pork explosion. Nor did it debate the becalmed economic stimulus bill. Instead, it spent hours debating what I previously have called the Great Train Robbery of 2001: a bill draining $15.3 billion from the Treasury to provide gilt-edged railroad worker pensions. They were debating only because two Republican senators -- Phil Gramm of Texas and Don Nickles of Oklahoma -- insisted on making the argument in a lost cause. With railway management and railway labor agreeing on the Treasury raid, a huge bipartisan majority favored the bill. Paradoxically, with the surpluses gone, so is senatorial spending restraint. Sen. Byrd just went a little too far in breaking his word to the president.