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Just give peace a chance?

By Al Kamen
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?)

And the institute says it was Washington who proposed to the colonies that a "peace establishment" be built at the site, then called Braddock's Rock.

People early on suggested to the USIP that it bag the bird, but apparently it's built into the structure's supports, so it can't be taken down easily.

But if Congress cuts off funding and the institute closes, what happens to the bird? Well, the building could be sold, maybe to Donald Trump or to a close ally for an embassy. Or it could be rented out for weddings, parties and such. We're told the USIP has already been receiving inquiries from folks - maybe including some Republicans who favor cutting the institute's funding - wanting to use the space.

Close call

Sometimes even congressional junket can get a bit dicey. Take the eight-member jaunt headed by Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on Asia and the Pacific, that took off last week.

The group was part of a large delegation - including former lawmakers, businessmen, the U.S. Trade Rep's office and others, trying to get the United States into the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, which aims to promote trade in the region.

Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand and Chile are in the group; Australia, Malaysia, Peru, the United States and Vietnam are working on joining. Manzullo's codel, which included Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.); Kevin Brady (R-Tex.); Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), and Delegates Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and Gregorio Sablan (D-Northern Marianas) along with a couple of spouses and staffers, took off Saturday morning - delayed a bit by the late House budget vote.

They attend the Christchurch, New Zealand, trade forum on Monday and met with New Zealand parliamentarians Tuesday morning before a one-hour flight to Wellington. Their plane took off at 10:30 that morning - just two hours and 21 minutes before the 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Christchurch that killed more than 100 people and left 200 missing. The group, now in Australia, is due back Sunday.

Quote of the week

This from Appropriations Committee member and 18-year House veteran Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), regarding concerns that there may be a government shutdown next week.

"What we're hearing is: 'Y'all gonna shut down the government,' " Kingston said. "Well, you know, they control the Senate, they control the White House. There's no way in the world that one branch can shut down the government."

We thought all this time that Newt shut it down in '95.

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