Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's few allies on Capitol Hill, last week issued a call for volunteers.
Amid considerable ho-hoing in the hearing room, he asked any senator willing to accept defense cuts in his home state to step forward.
He expected nothing but embarrassed silence to his invitation to political suicide.
Even the most dovish senator turns tiger to preserve a camp, a base or defense contract that puts money in his state's pocket.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), for example, the recently announced Democratic presidential "peace" candidate, is often challenged on his support for the B1 bomber.
He avers that he favors it as part of the "triad" nuclear defense strategy--air, ground and sea-based strategic nuclear missiles--but skeptics say they think the fact that the prime benefactor of the $4 billion contract, Rockwell International, is located in California, may have something to do with it.
It did not serve Tower's purposes to cite the contrary case of three Pentagon loyalists who begged for the cancellation of local defense expenditures. Sens. Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Jake Garn and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah fought against the MX "race-track" basing system in their states.
It would have brought mega-bucks and jobs, yes, but it would have drained off their water and made their constituents primary targets in a nuclear attack.
But Tower did not see fit to mention this instance of hawks who declined to sacrifice their careers for a weapons system.
His hope in sending his letter and making it public was to produce red faces and more respect for Weinberger's mammoth request. Weinberger has made the usual countermoves to create a constituency for a defense increase at a time when all social programs are under the severest scrutiny and Social Security recipients will have their cost-of-living increase held up for six months.
Weinberger suggests cutting back on the Rapid Deployment Force, a conventional fighting force that has adherents of all political persuasion. He has proposed freezing military pay, against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also warned, although he does not permit equations between the buildup against the Soviet threat and the economic well-being of the country, that "for each $1 billion cut, you lose about 35,000 jobs."
But Tower obviously thought that the way to halt what he calls the "irrational frenzy" against the defense-only budget escalation was a demonstration of the phenomenon that leads almost inevitably to passage of defense budgets of irrational magnitude:
"It has never ceased to amaze me that the same senators who stand on the floor and argue against increases are just as likely to call me aside and ask my personal support for projects or programs of interest in their states."
Well, one Democratic senator has called his bluff. David H. Pryor of Arkansas has told Tower, in effect, be my guest, cut the $158 million for nerve gas production in the Pine Bluff facility in my state.
Pryor, in a letter to Tower, also told the chairman that he should go further and save between $6 billion and $8 billion by terminating the entire binary chemical weapons program.
He expects that his gesture will not start a stampede and will probably be dismissed by Tower as smart-alecky. "Everybody knows I'm against the nerve gas buildup, so it doesn't count."
Pryor fought the construction of the nerve gas factory and lost. But last year he stopped production funds. The Pentagon has come right back for them.
Nerve gas production could bring 150 jobs to Pine Bluff, and the Chamber of Commerce reproached Pryor. Now it is resigned to his curious aversion to the revival of chemical warfare.
The sum of $158 million is a drop in the bucket in the $238.6 billion in Weinberger's fiscal 1984 request. But if every senator were willing to give up a comparable expenditure in his state, it could add up.
It is the disproportion that hurts. Every representative of older Americans at the first hearings on the Social Security overhaul package cited the military budget as contributing to the misery faced by those who live under or near the poverty line. Every dime for the handicapped is haggled over.
Congress protests that it understands the unfairness of it all.
But even after the November elections, when the country told it to cut back on military spending, it voted the largest Pentagon budget in peacetime history.
Part of it is because they don't dare take the knife to local pork. The rest is because they seem to lose their nerve whenever the commander-in-chief raises his voice.
That's why Tower can bait them. There aren't that many Pryors in the Senate.