Mississippi Awash In Federal Largess
Lawmakers Keep the Dollars Flowing
By Dan Morgan and Juliet Eilperin
Working behind the scenes with Republicans on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees this year, Lott was instrumental in getting at least $72.8 million added to defense bills for items made in Forest, thereby protecting precious high-tech jobs in a community that otherwise relies mainly on the poultry industry for employment.
"He knows that whatever he can send our way we'd be grateful for," said Forest Mayor Fred Gaddis, a longtime friend and supporter.
At Gulf Coast shipyards, Army bases, towns and communities in Mississippi--not to mention at Lott's alma mater, the University of Mississippi--the story is much the same. Tucked into nooks and crannies of this year's annual spending bills are dozens of items for Mississippi.
Along with research grants to study fire ants and nematodes, and money to support the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative, this year's crop of spending bills includes $375 million for an unrequested helicopter carrier to be built at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, and an additional $5.1 million for an electronic targeting system at the huge Army Reserve training facility at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg.
There is no great mystery about the source of Mississippi's pull in Washington. The state, which has about 1 percent of the nation's population, is basking in the political ascendancy of southern Republicans, who are proving just as adept as their Democratic forebears at claiming federal largess.
It is not just Lott. Fellow Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R), second-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of its agriculture subcommittee, has been pivotal in steering defense and agriculture dollars back home. The agriculture spending bill set aside money for at least 17 research programs for the state, one of the most generous allocations in the bill.
And on the House side, Mississippi Republican Rep. Roger Wicker, who came to Congress as part of the anti-government GOP class of 1994, claims credit for slipping millions of dollars into spending bills for medical and space research and water and economic development projects.
The use of political clout to balance the advantages of larger states is nothing new in Congress; Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) is famous for helping shift thousands of federal jobs from Washington to his home state, while Mississippi itself once benefited from the long tenure of the late Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. What seems particularly noteworthy in recent years, though, is the application of pork barrel politics by otherwise fiscally conservative Republicans who have talked of the need to curb federal spending.
"The Pentagon budget is the world's largest job program. Lott and others treat it as they do the transportation or education budget--as a chance to win money for home state projects," said John Isaacs of Council for a Livable World.
But none of Capitol Hill's powerful Mississippians make any apologies for their efforts. "I'm glad to be in a position to ensure that requests from my state are considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee," Cochran said in a statement.
"These projects aren't pulled out of thin air," said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. "It's fun to take cheap shots at Mississippi and the help he's brought to his state, but if there's some help he can bring to his constituents to alleviate a need or provide a job, he's not going to make apologies for that."
Many Mississippi supporters said Lott's funding of local projects simply reflects an effort to ease impoverished conditions. "He's tired of the dirt roads," said John Green, a former staffer who now works as a lobbyist.
But the new federal help has gone well beyond laying pavement. Increasingly, it builds on the state's growing role as a high-tech center for the space industry, the military and agriculture.
Lott and Cochran made sure, for example, that Mississippi State University's Engineering Research Center, whose superfast computers are used in undersea modeling for Navy projects, got an added $2 million. The University of Mississippi got another $2 million to set up four new computer labs to use information from orbiting satellites in new businesses.
Lott was even more adamant about funding for the LHD-8 helicopter carrier, a key piece of Mississippi's strategy to keep Gulf Coast shipyards humming. In a fax to top Navy officials, Lott's national security adviser, Eric Womble, pointedly pressed for support from the service, which favored postponing construction to conserve limited shipbuilding funds. "The Navy needs to support at least $375 m[illion] to $500 m[illion]," he wrote. "Please help--we have worked too hard to give up on the $500 m[illion] now."
Lott and Cochran argued that building the ship now could save $1 billion in the long run, and they got their way. But the allocation, part of an estimated $6 billion in defense projects added by Congress, drew fire from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain said it was "just wrong" to require such spending when some enlisted families are so poorly paid they qualify for food stamps.
Meanwhile, Lott worked quietly on behalf of Raytheon in Forest, where employment has dropped from a peak of 700 to around 400.
Since 1996, Raytheon's political action committee has contributed $10,000 to the New Republican Majority Fund, which Lott uses to raise money for other GOP candidates. It used the lobbying services of former representative G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), who once represented Forest in Congress and guarded its interests on the Armed Services Committee.
But local officials say the key lobbyist for Forest is Lott, who knows the community and is well-versed in the plant's needs. When he visited the facility on Highway 80 this summer, employees welcomed him warmly with verses from "Elvira," a favorite country song of Lott's. The majority leader, a barbershop crooner of some note, joined right in.
"I think they put on a show to let him know that he was important to us and that they needed some contracts," said Mayor Gaddis.
This year's Pentagon budget requested several hundred million dollars to buy equipment made there: a high-speed data network for the Army and Marine Corps called Enhanced Precision Location Reporting System (EPLRS); AN/APG-73 radars for F-18 fighters; and the Army's Firefinder artillery detection radars.
But the military also gave Lott and Cochran an opening to push for still more by putting the items on a "wish list" of additional purchases if more funds became available.
Early this year, Lott's staff talked to the Senate Armed Services Committee about these and other non-Mississippi items on this "unfunded priorities" list, sources said. The result was a Senate authorization for the Forest-made items that was well above what the Pentagon requested.
Lott spokesman Czwartacki stressed that "the vast majority of the [military] projects Lott advocates are not Mississippi projects" and include such items as the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft made in Pennsylvania and supply vessels made in California.
Nonetheless, the action by Armed Services set the stage for a Senate spending package that included more money for the Raytheon plant in Forest. In final negotiations on the defense bill last month, House members bowed to the Senate and agreed to $25.9 million more for EPLRS, $8.1 million more for Firefinder and $38.8 million more for APG-73 radars than the original administration request.
To the untutored eye, the earmarks were all but invisible, buried as they were in lines of numbers that did not mention either Raytheon or Forest.
But Raytheon employees in Forest soon got the word, according to Gaddis. "I don't want pork barrel stuff, but if the Defense Department needs it, Sen. Lott can see to it that they put [the work] in Raytheon," he said. "If we didn't have that plant in this small town, we'd have to close up."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company