The appropriators' war

Posted: Mar 14, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- At the beginning of last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle backtracked from his politically vulnerable position of seeming to criticize President Bush's war leadership. His anodyne resolution aligning the Senate "with the president in the ongoing effort to defeat terrorism" should have passed quickly. Yet, five days of backroom negotiations were needed for approval on a voice vote -- for one reason: Sen. Robert C. Byrd. As the Senate's senior Democrat and Appropriations Committee chairman, Byrd resisted giving Bush a blank check in fighting the war or even commending him. He has publicly asked Pentagon officials where the money will come from to fight terrorism worldwide. Has the master appropriator become an economizer? Not at all. He is pressing for higher homeland security funding, with lots of it destined for Byrd's home state of West Virginia. The Robert C. Byrd Regional Training Institute at Camp Dawson, W. Va., is the hub of the senator's plan to make his state the command center for anti-terrorist activities. That is only the most audacious instance of lawmakers turning the war against terrorism into a more lavish pork barrel. With Senate and House appropriations committees functioning as a bipartisan third house of Congress, the appropriators have gone to war -- against George W. Bush. Battlefront reports from the appropriators' war, just during the last week: -- Byrd and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, are insisting that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge testify before the appropriators. Ridge calls that inappropriate because he is a presidential aide not confirmed by the Senate. He offered to confer privately with Senate appropriators, but Byrd refused. Renowned for brow-beating executive branch witnesses, he insisted on a formal confrontation with Ridge. -- Rep. Bill Young of Florida, the House Appropriations Committee's Republican chairman, has joined with the committee's top Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, to sponsor restoration of $4.4 billion in highway funding -- a favorite congressional variety of pork. The Young-Obey bill immediately collected 64 co-sponsors. So much for Bush's policy of restraining domestic spending while financing the war. -- The dismissal of ex-Rep. Mike Parker of Mississippi as assistant secretary of the Army running the Corps of Engineers produced bipartisan, bicameral outrage -- especially among appropriators. Rivers and harbors presided over by the Corps rival highways as a traditional source of pork, and Parker pleased his former colleagues by criticizing the Bush administration's cuts. It cost Parker his job, and the word in the Senate is that no successor will be confirmed without committing to be Corps-friendly. None of this compares with Bob Byrd's audacity in using the war against terrorism to further his long-range commitment to transfer as much as possible of the U.S. government to West Virginia. Other senators talk about "rumors" of Byrd trying to make his state the headquarters for homeland security. When this column asked Byrd's office, we were told we must mean the abandoned Memorial Tunnel on the West Virginia Turnpike that already is used for emergency first-response training. Byrd's maneuvers constitute much more than rumor. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he quietly won approval of $5 million to pay for counter-terrorist training at the Memorial Tunnel and $1 million to lengthen the runway at Camp Dawson. Inside Dawson, the $22 million Robert C. Byrd Regional Training Institute has been completed. All this is just the beginning, leading to development of a full-fledged National Training Center for Homeland Security at the West Virginia National Guard post. Except for Byrd, the appropriators refrain from criticizing the popular president. They concentrate their fire on Budget Director Mitch Daniels, perhaps the most politically astute member of the Cabinet, who shoulders the burden of trying to control federal spending while Bush focuses on the war. Daniels, for example, is castigated in Congress for firing Mike Parker. Opposing pork is not the formula for popularity on Capitol Hill, as Sen. John McCain can testify. But McCain is wrong in linking this appetite to massive campaign spending. The problem is congressmen-for-life, who are never challenged for re-election and are dedicated to bringing home highways, water projects and even anti-terrorist facilities. President Bush is losing the war against the appropriators, and could lose it badly.