Veto Is Making 'Pork Barrel' a Shell Game
By Guy Gugliotta
It is called a "crisis response center," and it is described in recently passed legislation only as a "transportation emergency preparedness response demonstration project." It costs $450,000, and the money's due in 1998 unless President Clinton line-item vetoes it.
But before Clinton can determine which legislative tidbits are axed as "pork-barrel" projects and which are welcomed into the federal family, he has to find them.
Lawmakers have made an art of hiding their pet projects in legislative language in hopes they will make their way into law without a ripple of publicity about their cost or merit. Now that the president has the power to strike out individual spending items from bills, the hiding is even more important.
What the "crisis response center" is exactly and where it is supposed to be have been a mystery ever since anti-pork Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "outed" it in a July floor speech on the Senate's proposed appropriations bill for the Transportation Department.
It took one reporter five days and 27 phone calls to a half-dozen federal agencies and seven congressional offices to find out that the center is supposed to be located in Arab, Ala., and that Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) is its patron.
The quest involved esoterica such as finding out the altitude of Amarillo, Tex. (3,658 feet), identifying the No. 4 tornado state in the country (Florida) and learning about a tractor-mounted navigational tool that midwestern farmers use to find the exact square yard of ground that needs an application of pesticide.
The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation had described the center in its report on the spending bill, noting that "very little transportation-oriented civil emergency preparedness work has been done in relation to tornadoes," a "deadly threat to the Southern and Midwestern states."
To meet the challenge, the report continued, the subcommittee "provided $450,000" for a "demonstration project" to build "an underground emergency transportation management center utilizing satellite communications." It placed the center "in a region that is susceptible to tornadoes . . . at an elevation of over 1,300 feet above sea level" and "within reasonably close proximity to military, space and/or nuclear facilities to provide rapid response time."
"I wonder why the committee felt it was necessary to be so specific" about the center's location, mused a tongue-in-cheek McCain.
McCain offers Quixote-like floor amendments that are embarrassing to colleagues even though they always lose by enormous margins. McCain's staff also analyzes the lard content of appropriations bills and puts the results on his Web page.
Spotting suspicious items, however, is only half the battle. Asked who put the center in the bill and where the center was going to be, McCain's chief pork analyst said, "I have no idea."
After a few more phone calls, it was easy to see why.
Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman John Roffetto was pessimistic. "I'll try" to help, he said, but promised nothing. Committee staff "don't usually talk about this stuff."
This was confirmed in a call to the transportation subcommittee. "Requests come in the form of letters to the [subcommittee] chairman," said a subcommittee aide who declined to be identified. "We do not divulge their contents." And aides to Shelby, the subcommittee chairman, indicated the senator was not in a divulging mood, adding, "We will get back to you."
Another phone call eliminated the possibility that the Transportation Department had actually asked for a crisis response center. "We did not initiate it," said DOT spokeswoman Patricia Klinger. "But tornadoes?" she asked rhetorically. "Could that be Arkansas?"
Probably not, but Klinger was thinking the same way as the subcommittee source who advised that "you have a 50-50 chance if you can figure out the state."
Perhaps a meteorological/geogra-
phical/space/nuclear strategy was needed to supplement the usual badgering of senators.
At the U.S. Geological Survey, spokesman Don Bingham said cartographers could "give you a rough idea on elevation," but why not call the National Severe Storms Laboratory, in Norman, Okla.? "They specialize in tornadoes," Bingham said. "Your question would be right up their alley."
A visit to the National Weather Service Web page yielded a table entitled "Tornado Numbers, Deaths, Injuries, and Adjusted Damage 1950-94," with listings by state. Texas was first, with 5,490 tornadoes, followed by Oklahoma (2,300) and Kansas (2,110).
The World Almanac and Book of Facts provided a list of the highest places by state, making it possible to eliminate No. 4 Florida, whose highest spot is 345 feet above sea level, and Illinois (No. 9, 1,235 feet) from the top 10.
Attention immediately turned to No. 7 Missouri. The highest point (Taum Sauk Mountain, 1,772 feet) barely made the cut, but Missouri is the home of Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R), the only transportation subcommittee member from the top 10.
Even better, Energy Department spokeswoman Chris Kielich confirmed that Kansas City, Mo., had one of only two nuclear-related plants in the tornado belt; the other was in Amarillo, Tex.
"It was the satellite communications requirement that got me interested," she said. explaining that the Kansas City nuclear facility had played a key role in developing "little instruments" that use satellites to enable farmers to fix their position almost to the cornstalk.
In Kansas City, however, the Energy Department's Jack Quint was doubtful, noting that his facility "manufactures nonnuclear components for nuclear weapons programs." And at Bond's office, spokeswoman Leanne Jerome examined Bond's appropriations wish list and didn't find the center. "Not ours," she said.
At the Severe Storms Center, spokesman Gary Skaggs noted that the classic "Tornado Alley States" are Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, but he also mentioned that someone (like a savvy senator) might employ a "loose definition" that could include almost anywhere but Alaska (no tornadoes in 44 years).
Still, Skaggs liked Amarillo. "When you start talking about military bases, nuclear facilities and space, you really start narrowing it down," he said. "And talk about an area susceptible to tornadoes!"
At the Energy Department's Pantex facility in the Texas Panhandle outside Amarillo (altitude 3,658 feet), spokesman Tom Walton was looking at "mostly feed lots" and hadn't heard anything about the crisis response center.
He agreed, however, that the facility's 3,000 employees "do a lot of disaster preparedness" training, but since "we assemble and disassemble nuclear weapons," they were most worried about nuclear accidents. Still, "if a tornado hit the plant, that would not be a good thing."
This response merited calls to Texas Sens. Phil Gramm (R) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), but neither knew anything about the center and doubted if Amarillo was the place. "Even if it wasn't ours, we would have heard something about it," Gramm spokesman Lawrence A. Neal said.
With nuclear facilities providing no leads, it was time to shift to space. The Federal Staff Directory lists 18 NASA field installations, including two in Louisiana (No. 11 on the tornado list) and one in Alabama (No. 14).
Alabama looked the most promising. It was Chairman Shelby's home state, and although it was low in tornado numbers, it was fourth in fatalities (275) and third in injuries (4,483).
A phone call to the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., elicited good and bad news. The space center was in the middle of a huge military complex, said spokesman Jerry Berg, but Huntsville was in the Tennessee River Valley. No altitude. Yet the flight center did have "cost-effective, wide-area network telecommunications services for transmissions of data, video and voice," Berg said. But "how that relates to what you're asking we really don't know."
By the beginning of this week, conferees had rewritten the transportation appropriations bill, and both chambers of Congress had passed the final $12.5 billion legislation, reducing the center's description to a single cryptic sentence. It referred readers, presumably the president, to "the Senate report" for more detail.
The bill awaits Clinton's signature when he returns from Latin America, after which he will have five days to exercise a line-item veto, if he chooses. The game was almost over, so maybe the committees were feeling more forthcoming.
"All I can do is refer you to Senator Shelby," said House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Elizabeth Murra. "We understand it's of personal interest to him."
The center, explained Shelby spokeswoman Laura Cox, "would be similar to those dealing with hurricanes getting people out of the area, making sure people are aware of inclement weather around them." Shelby hoped the Transportation Department would put the center in "the area that is referred to as `tornado alley,' " she continued. "Ideally Arab, Alabama."
It came as no surprise that Arab, south of Huntsville in the Appalachian foothills, is "the second highest incorporated city in Alabama," according to Mayor Johnny Hart. How high is that? "Right at 1,300 feet."
In the last five years, Hart said, Arab has had two ice storms and a February 1995 tornado that killed six people. The center can "bring all the resources to a central place" to coordinate disaster response across northern Alabama.
The "central place," he said, is the basement of the Arab Fire Department, where a satellite communications headquarters will be built. "When it is finished, we won't have to rent office space" for the National Guard and other rescue personnel, Hart said.
Cox said the center came about because Hart and the Alabama state emergency agency told Shelby about their problem.
"Senator Shelby will not be commenting on it," Cox said, but "the senator would not make any apologies for protecting the lives of Alabamians. We feel like this is a very important use of funds."
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