Political pork survives in pressure-cooker budget

October 17, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Time is again running out for the budget-makers of Congress, and so is money. But somehow on Capitol Hill, there is always enough time and money for the goodies of pork barrel politics.

Consider, for instance, the twisting, turning saga of whether to pay for a new National Drug Intelligence Center. It offers a tidy Washington parable of how, even in the leanest and meanest of times, $10 million can still be up for grabs for a facility that some drug enforcement officials say would be a waste of money.

The project seemed dead last week when the Senate Appropriations Committee sternly said no. The panel spelled out its rejection in budget language specifically forbidding the Justice Department from spending a penny on the idea.

But the proposal quickly came back to life in the House Appropriations Committee, niftily skirting the Senate ban by becoming part of the Pentagon budget, even though the Justice Department's anti-drug effort would still end up with the money.

That was the doing of two Pennsylvania congressmen on the defense appropriations subcommittee, Democratic Chairman John P. Murtha and ranking Republican Joseph M. McDade. Along the way, the Pennsylvanians made another key change: the Washington-based facility was now earmarked for Pennsylvania.

"I don't know if this is anything other than a pork barrel," remarked a Senate appropriations staffer.

"Pennsylvania as a site isn't exactly what we had in mind," said a drug enforcement official.

Ray Landis, a spokesman for Mr. Murtha, said the appropriation had been misunderstood.

"We don't like to think of it as pork barrel," Mr. Landis said. "But the geographic location is a consideration, and there is a good labor force up there which has been through a lot of hard times."

And this would provide the area some jobs?


That seems to fit the generally accepted definition for a pork barrel appropriation, a term that goes back to the days when field hands would greedily grab at their shares of salt pork from a large barrel. The term seems particularly apt in this case because Justice officials say privately they "want no part of" the Pennsylvania proposal, though Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh is himself a Pennsylvanian. They instead prefer a Washington location, where the center would be convenient to the agencies it would serve.

Mr. Landis explained further. "The reason they earmarked it for Pennsylvania," he said, "is that they're trying to move some things out of the capital area into some areas where it will generally be less expensive to operate."

Congressional interest in a new center for drug intelligence goes back several years, and in January William J. Bennett, director of national drug control policy, spoke in favor of the idea.

Even then there were plenty of critics, who pointed out that there were already drug intelligence centers being run by the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso, Texas (chosen ostensibly for its location along the Mexican border), by the CIA in Langley, Va., and by the Treasury Department in Arlington, Va.

But Mr. Bennett said those places failed to provide the sort of coordinated information needed for long-range planning in the drug war against the Latin American and Far Eastern cartels. Nonetheless, the early request for $86 million was soon cut in half, and by this summer the amount was down to $8 million for a first-year jump start.

In the end, a shortage of money in the Justice Department budget persuaded the Senate appropriations subcommittee headed by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., to write the language preventing Justice officials from spending anything on the center.

Then came the action by Mr. Murtha's subcommittee in the House, and now the final struggle will be decided in a House-Senate conference committee.

Though the budget language in the House version doesn't specify where in Pennsylvania the center would end up, federal officials and congressional staffers say it's clear the preferred sites are Johnstown or Scranton.

The former is part of Mr. Murtha's district. The latter is part of Mr. McDade's.

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