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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2002
The front line in the war against terrorism has shifted from Afghanistan to Washington, where congressional pork has become the weapon of choice.
House and Senate committees are holding televised hearings on the intelligence failings of the FBI and the CIA before the Sept. 11 attacks. Meanwhile, President Bush announced the biggest reorganization of government agencies in more than a half century, combining dozens of domestic security functions into a single Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Defense.
None of this, however, compares to the Senate's contribution to the war on terrorism. Last week it overwhelming approved a $31.4-billion counterterrorism bill that must have Osama bin Laden scratching his head in confusion. Like a lot of Americans, he may be wondering what Smithsonian bug specimens, Hawaii's coral reefs, flood relief and honey bee research have to do with fighting terrorism. Unless he is a student of the congressional appropriations process, the Evil One may suspect that it's all a trick, a clever Washington ploy to distract him from his evil business.
Unfortunately, Congress is not that clever. What is going on is business as usual in Washington. Lawmakers have yet to consider an appropriations bill that, in their view, couldn't be improved with a little pork, and the counterterrorism bill is no exception. It doesn't seem to bother them that their porkfest trivialized the debate in the world's most deliberative body on how to secure the home front.
The legislation, which faces a veto threat from President Bush, mostly funds the military, the FBI and other agencies on the front line of the war on terrorism. It also contains $5.5-billion for New York's recovery effort; $200-million for Israel; $50-million in humanitarian aid to Palestinians and $100-million to fight AIDS in poor countries.
Senators couldn't resist seizing the opportunity to tack on spending projects that have little or nothing to do with fighting terrorism -- $2-million to relocate alcohol-soaked bug and animal specimens from the Smithsonian Museum; $2.5-million for mapping Hawaii's coral reefs; $2.5-million for research on foot and mouth disease in Greenport, N.Y.; $73-million for flood relief in Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan; language directing the Department of Agriculture to kill Bush's proposal to eliminate funds for honey bee research.
Most of these projects may be worthy of federal funding -- certainly flood relief is -- but they shouldn't be piggybacked on the counterterrorism bill. Democrats scolded Republican critics of the popular legislation, and GOP opposition collapsed faster than the Taliban. "Clearly the bill has gotten out of control," said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. But he saw no point in dragging out the debate.
"Tell your people back home they don't need this protection," bellowed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-West Va., the King of Pork. "Tell them, don't tell us."
I wish Sen. Byrd, one of the biggest hogs feeding at the federal trough, would tell the American people what honey bee research or mapping coral reefs have to do with fighting terrorism on the home front. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been doing his best to spoil the porkfest, can't see the connection.
"We are trying to recover from and respond to the terrorist attacks on the United States by moving some alcohol-encased bugs from one facility to another," McCain said. "I do not know of any disruption of coral reefs in Hawaii associated with the terrorist attacks."
Obviously, John McCain has no imagination. Democrats suggested that he doesn't seem to understand that the Smithsonian specimens -- preserved in highly flammable alcohol -- pose a major safety risk. They apparently can imagine terrorists igniting the alcohol and burning down the Smithsonian Museum. That may be a credible threat, but don't we have bigger threats to worry about -- like a dirty nuclear bomb slipping into a U.S. port in a cargo container or the vulnerability of our nuclear power plants? Maybe senators also can imagine using bee research to develop killer bees that could be programmed to swarm into Osama bin Laden's cave and sting him to death, or at least flush him out of hiding.
It's too bad no one in government was able to imagine what was coming at us on Sept. 11.