Just give peace a chance?

The U.S. Institute of Peace and its conspicuous new headquarters have gotten the attention of budget-conscious lawmakers.
The U.S. Institute of Peace and its conspicuous new headquarters have gotten the attention of budget-conscious lawmakers.
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 6:25 PM

The U.S. Institute of Peace has been taking heavy incoming fire from the House side of the Hill, where a bipartisan coalition last week voted to cut off its funding.

The House's newest "odd couple," Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), launched the first major salvo in a Feb. 16 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, just three days before the House vote. The duo called the USIP a "case study in how government waste thrives."

Congress created the USIP with $4 million in seed money during the Cold War. Last year the institute got $34 million from Congress, plus $17 million in payments from the State Department and the Pentagon and an additional $15 million for its new building on the edge of the Mall, the lawmakers wrote.

The USIP wants about $54 million from taxpayers next year, the members estimated - more than half a billion dollars over 10 years, as we now count things.

Chaffetz and Weiner, the latter writing in his official capacity as a House member, not his more famous persona as the spouse of Huma Abedin, adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called the USIP a "fine think tank" and said they didn't question the organization's value, just its need for public money when it "raises millions from corporations and private interests."

USIP folks were blindsided when 40 other Democrats - more than 20 percent of the Democratic caucus - joined the GOP majority in voting to cut off the organization's funding.

The Democratic-controlled Senate will probably restore the funding, we're told, but then the issue would go to a House-Senate conference committee, where, as always, all bets are off.

The peace institute has returned fire by pointing out that it is not a run-of-the-mill think tank, but rather a place that actually sends a very talented staff out to resolve conflicts in some of the nastiest places on earth, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. It has offices in beautiful downtown Baghdad and in scenic Kabul and was a major player in the Balkans during the bad years.

None other than Gen. David Petraeus has praised the USIP for its "reconciliation effort" in 2007 in helping the military stabilize an area once called the "Triangle of Death." The battalion commander there at the time credits the institute with saving American lives. Former secretaries of state and defense have weighed in to support it.

Perhaps if its 325 staff members all toiled overseas or hunkered down in some creaky offices downtown, it wouldn't have become so exposed. But, as the two lawmakers noted, there's that curiously shaped 150,000-square-foot, $183 million new office building in a prime location near the Lincoln Memorial that it is soon moving into.

Every morning, commuters, including no doubt some who work on the Hill, drive across the bridges from Virginia and ask: What is that thing? Then they find out they own it. They shelled out more than $100 million for it - courtesy of the late senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who slipped it in a bill back in 1985 - are likely to pay several million a year toward its maintenance.

That thing on top? The thing that looks like a big tent, or maybe a cloud? We're told it's a dove. The USIP says the idea came from a dove designed by George Washington himself and is in the weathervane atop his Mount Vernon home. (Maybe that's why he eschewed design for a career in the military and politics?)

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company