Sounding the Alarm on Nuclear Proliferation
The United States was in the thick of the Vietnam War in 1969 when Spratt received an ROTC commission as an Army captain. He spent the next two years stateside, working on the staff of the Defense Department comptroller's office, examining procurement troubles.
For the next dozen years, Spratt practiced law in York, where he also spent time as the county and school district attorney. He prospered, becoming a bank president and owner of an insurance agency in nearby Fort Mill. His brother-in-law is Hugh L. McColl Jr., former chairman of Bank of America.
Elected to Congress the day after his 40th birthday, Spratt landed in Washington as a provincial star without many connections, like the high school football captain who arrives at college to discover himself surrounded by others who were captains, too. He went to the Armed Services Committee, where the future chairman, Les Aspin (D-Wis.), looked out for him.
Spratt chaired a panel on President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars, the precursor to the missile defense system. When a colleague returned to claim the panel's top job, Spratt needed to look for something new.
"You play the ball where it lies," Spratt said. "If I wanted to have a role, I had to go after things other people weren't flocking towards. I had to find something fairly esoteric, that was both justified and didn't ruffle too many feathers."
Nuclear weapons. Highly enriched uranium. Atomic testing. Combined with his interest in budget matters, Spratt had found his metier.
When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1993 and made Aspin his secretary of defense, Aspin offered Spratt the job as Army secretary. Spratt turned it down. After a decade on the job, Spratt felt he was drawing closer to a leadership role in the House and was not convinced that an Army secretary would have enough "power, authority, discretion."
These are frustrating times for House Democrats who face the iron discipline of the GOP leadership. Spratt's ire was triggered most recently when he tried to move $400 million, including a large sum from the missile defense program, into raises for senior noncommissioned officers and warrant officers.
"This was not just a 'gotcha' amendment. These guys are the backbone of an army," Spratt said. "I thought we needed to have that debate on the House floor."
His amendment failed to make it that far, a predicament he said would not have occurred in an earlier, more collegial time.
"I raised hell about it," he said.
And what happened next?
"Nothing," Spratt said. "The well of the floor ought to be a great national forum, a crucible where we grind out good ideas for the country. I'm afraid that's not what we have now."
Spratt is deeply troubled by the administration's follow-through on the president's nonproliferation pledges. A particular peeve is the administration's recent increases in spending on research into new atomic warheads. He believes a resumption of testing, despite repeated denials, is "on the horizon."
"What troubles me most," Spratt told a recent Arms Control Association gathering, "is the attitude this administration seems to take. This administration seems to believe that the United States can move the world in one direction while we ourselves move in a different direction."
He was dismayed last year when the administration and its allies repealed a restriction, coauthored by Spratt, that had banned research and development on new nuclear weapons with yields lower than five kilotons. He said the administration is "taking us back to somewhere where we were years ago and were thankful to have moved beyond."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. used a seat on the Armed Services Committee to develop his niche: U.S. nuclear policy.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
John M. Spratt Jr.
Title: Member of U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat of South Carolina.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Davidson College; master's in philosophy, politics and economics, Oxford University (Marshall Scholarship); law degree, Yale University.
Family: Married, three daughters.
Career highlights: Captain, U.S. Army; private law practice; county attorney; bank president; insurance company owner.
Favorite movie: "High Noon."
Favorite food: Bill Neal's oyster pie.
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