The House yesterday approved the biggest civil defense budget in more than 15 years in one of several actions reflecting intensified concern about Soviet intentions now that arms talks have broken down.
Although critics said during the House debate that increasing the civil defense budget from $90 million to $134.8 million would be "the height of insanity" and "preposterous," the full House went along with its Armed Services Committee and voted the larger amount, $44.8 million more than the Pentagon requested.
The civil defense money was contained in a procurement bill that indicated the majority of the House is willing to support President Carter in holding the line on military spending as long as it does not mean giving an edge to the Soviets in strategic weaponry.
The bill that passed last night on a 347-to-43 vote authorizes $35.9 billion for civil defense, missiles, bombers and ships for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 1977. Other money to finance the Defense Department is contained in separate legislation that is expected to bring the total fiscal 1978 defense budget up to a record $120 billion.
Although the procurement bill is $60.8 million more than Carter requested, it represents House approval of almost the full $2.6 billion cut he recommended after reviewing President Ford's defense budget for fiscal 1978. The debate and voting over the last three legislative days provided the best indication of House sentiment toward national defense since the U.S.-Soviet talks to limit strategic arms reached an impasse last month.
Backers of increasing the civil, defense budget by 50 per cent used the argument that the United States dare not give the Soviet Union any advantage in the strategic equation. Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.) said it would be "destabilizing for us to do nothing in response to the growing Soviet program."
Whitehurst argued that civil defense shelters could reduce American casualties from a nuclear war "down to 20 million . . . it's criminal to say there's no hope."
Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.) contended that the Soviet leaders could use civil defense as American Presidents use B-52s in times of crisis to issue warnings. The Soviets, Dornan said, could start evacuating people from the cities as part of their well-planned civil defense program. "How are we going to respond to that?"
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) said he could not believe what he was hearing and declared that spending any money on civil defense would be "a waste, ludicrous, insane. It makes me feel I'm sitting on the floor of the House in a dream. It's the height of insanity," said Dellums, given the country's "other human problems."
Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, agreed with Dellums and said that no civil defense program would be effective if nuclear war should come.
The $134.8 million the House authorized for improved civil defense - if Congress ends up actually appropriating the money - would be the largest amount budgeted for that effort since fiscal 1962 when $207.6 million was appropriated.Yesterday's action indicated a marked change in the congressional mood. By contrast, in 1951 when President Truman requested $403 million for civil defense, Congress cut the figure to $31.8 million.
More recent efforts to expand the U.S. civil defense program have failed partly because of the national decision to forgo an active defense against missiles, the anti-ballistic-missile program. Lawmakers found they could not win support for a passive shelter program when national leaders had decided against any active missile protection.
Dellums expressed similar dismay on Friday about going ahead with the Air Force MX intercontinental ballistic missile and offered an amendment to cut the money for its development. But, again reflecting the militant mood, the House voted down the amendment, 87 to 11.
Although there is significant opposition to putting the B-1 bomber into production, House opponents of the plane said yesterday they did not want to test their strength in the House at this time. They said that some members who ordinarily would vote against producing the B-1 would refuse to act before Carter has made his own decision.
During his election campaign Carter said producing the B-1 would be "wasteful." He is now considering whether to cancel the bomber program, and his decision is expected this summer.
One sign that the House is willing to revise expensive military programs outside the strategic area came when a surprising number of lawmakers (though still a minority) voted to reduce military pensions, which cost the Pentagon $9 billion this year.