WE'VE BEEN DOING a little reading about sea lampreys lately, and we can reliably share this assessment: nasty creatures. Primitive, eel-shaped fish that "feed by attaching on other fish with their suctorial mouths and extracting blood and other body fluids," according to one account. Each sea lamprey, during the course of its 12- to 20-month adult life, can kill 40 pounds of fish. Sea lampreys invaded the Great Lakes over the last century and devastated the native population of lake trout and other fish. Scientists have been working to beat them back ever since.
Lampreys may be the Saddam Husseins of the sea; still, we're not quite sure what they're doing in the emergency war spending bill approved by both houses of Congress last week and now in conference. The Senate version of the measure includes $500,000 for sea lamprey control in Lake Champlain. As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted in his valiant but failed effort to strip these kind of extraneous provisions: "The sea lamprey does not, in my opinion, pose a clear and present danger to our national security."
This is a tiny sum in the context of a nearly $80 billion spending bill, but observers of the appropriations process won't be surprised to learn that lampreys are the least of it. When President Bush sent the defense supplemental to Congress, he took the opportunity to lecture members against "business as usual on Capitol Hill." In case lawmakers didn't get his point, Mr. Bush added, "And by that I mean the supplemental should not be viewed as an opportunity to add spending that is unrelated, unwise, and unnecessary." But the administration and Congress both have seized on the supplemental -- which was guaranteed to speed through the legislative process -- as an opportunity to win benefits tenuously related to war in Iraq. The administration tucked more than $60 million in assistance for Colombia -- this despite the fact that Colombia received $500 million in the 2003 spending bill approved earlier this year and that the administration has asked for another $700 million in 2004. The Pentagon tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to grab more leeway in shifting around how it spends money -- close to $10 billion annually, about five times the current amount. Then members of Congress went to work. It may be that this supplemental is cleaner than the norm, but (a) that isn't saying much and (b) you would hope so, given that this is a war bill. The add-ons are especially galling given that homeland security -- which gets $4 billion-plus in the supplemental, a significant sum -- was told to compete for additional funds in the regular course of appropriations business, in the fiscal 2004 spending bills now under consideration. That may well be the appropriate way to proceed, but, as between extra money for port security and $98 million to renovate an Agriculture Department research facility in Iowa or $50 million for a Maritime Administration loan program, the choice should be clear. Mr. McCain's amendment to remove such extraneous provisions, totaling some $250 million, didn't even come close to passage; it failed 38 to 61. It would behoove the conferees to take another hard look. Sea lampreys can wait.