It is the opposite of the politics of pork: the Pentagon has on its hands what the Pine Bluff, Ark., Chamber of Commerce calls "the Pryor problem."
Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) is being stubborn about what the generals and admirals see as the clear need to go back to producing deadly nerve gas in a big way in Pryor's home state.
Not even the political glitter of a reactivated plant in Pine Bluff and hundreds of jobs has moved Pryor from his opposition to the Pentagon's plan.
There can't be many votes for his stance in job-hungry Arkansas. Nor is this the year to shout that the Russians are not coming after all.
"I've read the confidential minutes of the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce where they have a section called 'the Pryor problem,' " the senator said with equanimity during an interview in his office. "But I also remember the standing ovation I got at a meeting where I had a chance to explain my position."
His position is that the United States already has stored enough nerve gas to kill everybody on Earth and should be looking for ways to destroy it rather than producing more.
The Pentagon rebuttal is that the Soviet Union has surged ahead of the United States in such chemical weapons as nerve gas, and the only way to scare the Russians out of using it is to make sure our arsenal is as deadly as theirs. The Pentagon calls this "mutual deterrence." Pryor calls it "madness."
Pryor does not believe he is a zealot or soft on defense. Rather, he fears that leadership is breaking down, that it has become dangerously easy to go along with the Pentagon rather than buck the trend.
On the issue of nerve gas, Pryor said he saw the congressional tide shift quickly from opposition to support. Time after time in the past decade, Congress has rebuffed Army entreaties to rebuild the U.S. arsenal of chemical weapons.
On Jan. 27, 1971, President Nixon announced that the secret laboratories at Pine Bluff would no longer be used to develop germ warfare. The government instead would establish the National Center for Toxicological Research in Pine Bluff, Nixon said.
But in 1978 Pryor heard rumblings that a factory might be rebuilt at the Pine Bluff arsenal to produce "binary" munitions, shells and bombs in which two nontoxic chemicals are packed in separate compartments. When the munitions are fired, the two chemicals are thrown together in a deadly brew that gives off nerve gas.
"We are about to take a major step backward," Pryor protested in 1978 to President Carter.
Congress agreed for a while. But in 1980, as presidential challenger Ronald Reagan was pounding Carter for letting down the nation's defenses, Congress voted for a $3.15 million down payment to prepare the Pine Bluff plant to produce binary weapons. An amendment to head this off failed by one vote in the Senate.
Last year, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) pushed through an amendment to give the Pentagon another $20 million to equip the Pine Bluff plant, without starting nerve gas production. The decision to go ahead with production was left to President Reagan.
"A decision to proceed in the chemical weapons race would commit the United States to at least $6 billion over the next five years that could better be allocated to existing conventional needs in our defense system," Pryor wrote to Reagan on Jan. 22.
But on Feb. 8 Reagan notified Congress that it was in the national interest to resume nerve gas production.
Pryor hopes to become a big enough problem in the coming months to prevent that from happening, although the odds seem long, given the apparent pro-defense mood on the Hill.
In Pryor's view, "producing binary nerve gas is not going to kill one more Russian soldier or one more Russian civilian than the conventional stockpile that we now have on hand." He said one of the forces driving the Pentagon toward resuming nerve gas production at Pine Bluff, an effort suspended in 1969, "is the illusion of strength that if we spend more dollars and have a greater stockpile, we will be stronger whether we can deliver or not."
"The Europeans are not going to let nerve gas on their soil," Pryor continued, "so it is the MX all over again. We don't know where to put either of those weapons when we get them."
Another driving force, as Pryor sees it, is the military's determination to get while the getting is good under President Reagan. "It's like walking into Macy's with an American Express card, a Visa card and a Master Charge, and saying, 'Let's buy all we can.' "
It's "an indictment of leadership," Pryor said, "that we have failed to properly discuss the ramifications of what we're doing" on nerve gas and other defense decisions.
Pryor charged that U.S. leaders "are trying to scare everybody" about the Soviet threat in an effort to cover up the U.S. failure to negotiate arms control. "Something has got to jolt us" off this course, he said. "We've got to be sane."