Archive for Tuesday, May 4, 1999

ARMS SALES CREATE UNCERTAINTY

May 4, 1999

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By Jack Anderson and Jan Moller

Washington -- A brief snapshot of Washington at war:

We caught up with Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., as he was riding the Senate subway back to his office last Wednesday. He wasn't very happy about what he'd seen in the latest "emergency" supplemental bill working its way through Congress.

"The camel's nose is under the tent," said Gramm, which might be Texas parlance for "the pork-barrel is about to roll."

As the war in Kosovo threatens to drag into summer, lawmakers are busy wondering how to pay for it. The administration wants an extra $5 billion and change to finance its thus-far unsuccessful bombing campaign against Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. But Republicans couldn't resist the urge to use this funding request as an excuse to fund their pet military projects.

Under the spending caps provided in the balanced-budget deal, Congress may not hike spending in one area without cutting an equal amount from somewhere else. But that's not the case with "emergency" supplemental requests. Slap an emergency label on a funding request, and the caps don't apply. It's too good an opportunity for some to pass up.

That's how we ended up with a $13 billion emergency bill that includes more than $1 billion for military construction projects that have nothing to do with Kosovo. Almost $300 million will go to build Army facilities in Germany; another $334 million will be spent on Air Force facilities throughout Europe; and $1.34 billion will pay for "spare parts." None of this funding was sought by the White House.

So much for the budget surplus.

At about the same time, across the street in a House office building, a lunch was breaking up and a collection of contrarians were going their separate ways. The occasion for the lunch was to release a report, "Arms Un-Control: A Record Year for U.S. Military Exports." It's a fine piece of work, put out by an under-funded outfit called Demilitarization for Democracy.

Beating swords into plowshares isn't a popular cause in Washington these days, but the luncheon managed to attract a fair share of lawmakers. Over club sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies, attendees were told that in 1997 (the last year for which statistics are available), America exported a record $8.3 billion worth of military training and hardware to dictatorial regimes around the world. A Vietnam veteran got up to explain that one of the "worst fears of U.S. soldiers around the world" is being fired at by U.S.-made weaponry.

It's not an idle threat; in four recent conflicts -- Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Panama -- American soldiers have been confronted by enemy weaponry either supplied or funded by their own government.

The group has been working with Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias and others to promote an international code of conduct for arms merchants, which would prevent such sales in the future. It enjoys support from a diverse spectrum of lawmakers on the left and right, including such defense hawks as Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif. But there's hardly enough support to overcome the $6 million-plus that defense contractors spend each year to keep politicians in line.

In yet another corner of Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt was on the phone with supporters talking about the war. He supports the administration's efforts -- and will support ground troops when that inevitability arises. Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., is also on board, as is the rest of the House Democratic leadership. They've spent too many millions and too many thousands of man-hours promoting "unity" among Democrats to see it break apart over Kosovo.

But, Gephardt explained to his lieutenants, the Democratic base is getting nervous. Defections are likely if the war drags on much longer. A recent meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) didn't go well. Gephardt and Hastert have already met more in four months than Newt Gingrich did in four years, but this time the comity wasn't enough. "I can't help you," was Hastert's blunt message to his counterpart.

Finally, on the other side of town, officials were admitting -- in belated, classic Clintonian fashion -- that the security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory and elsewhere were unprecedented. Reams of classified information had been moved into an unclassified database, accessible to anyone able to crack a simple password. Not just China, but any country with wherewithal and bad intentions could have broken in and stolen some of our most precious nuclear secrets -- what Rep. Chris Cox allegedly calls "the crown jewels" in an unreleased report.

It's almost enough to make one wish for the days of the Cold War. At least then, everyone knew who the enemy was.

-- Jack Anderson and Jan Moller are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.

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