The Pentagon probably wasn't smart, and it certainly wasn't subtle, when it struck back at two of its most resolute tormentors.
First, the brass denied use of an Air Force plane to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee that caused them massive embarrassment with disclosures about General Dynamics' raids, with permission, on the national treasury. Dingell, respectfully known around the House as "the Truck," is philosophical about cancellation of his plans to take a delegation to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. He is, however, unlikely to forget.
The Pentagon also mounted an offensive against whistle blower A. Ernest Fitzgerald. He had given Dingell invaluable assistance. The Pentagon retaliated by giving Fitzgerald an unfavorable job rating that could be a preliminary to an attempt to fire him.
The last time the Pentagon tried to fire Fitzgerald -- for the crime of noting in public that the cost overrun on the C5A plane came to $2 billion -- he fought back. After 12 years he was restored to his job and unreconstructedly went back to finding waste, fraud and abuse in Pentagon ledgers.
This time, he won't have to fight for himself. Dingell, growling about "messing with my witnesses," has launched an investigation into the rating, made by Assistant Air Force Secetary Richard E. Carver. Dingell calls the putdown of Fitzgerald "arrogance of a high order and stupidity of an extraordinary kind."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has transformed himself into the most popular politician in Iowa history with his assaults on Pentagon bloat, is also planning to look into the circumstances of the below-par evaluation of Fitzgerald's performance.
Fitzgerald was graded "below the fully successful" on "problem-solving," "working relationships" and "work management." Carver wrote that Fitzgerald "is a competent and skilled employe who has lacked overall direction in his effort to manage and reduce costs which has substantially inhibited our ability to address these very important problems."
Dingell's staff is confident that the attempt to convey Fitzgerald as a roadblock to reform will be defeated, since it has a handwritten memo from Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert H. Reed that specifically tells the troops to disregard Fitzgerald's guidelines for solving "these very important problems."
The Pentagon may be especially furious because it brought the General Dynamics scandal on itself. Last year, Dingell asked for expert help in stalking the General Dynamics executives who boarded their dogs and joined country clubs at taxpayer expense. He requested Fitzgerald, who was detailed to Dingell because the Pentagon wanted to get rid of him. Fitzgerald and two other procurement "fanatics," Tom Anslie and Colin Parfitt, went to work and turned up devastating instances of how expensive weapons can become when overhead goes through the roof.
The Pentagon also faces a growing rebellion among liberal House Democrats, who don't think that giving the brass an extra $10 billion is going to help any more than grounding Dingell or trashing Fitzgerald.
The Senate rolled over House positions on every question, beginning with the money -- the House wanted to hold the spenders to $292 billion -- and wiping out modest reforms and restrictions it had voted.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called a caucus at which members raged at Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who gave the Senate and the Pentagon what it wanted on chemical warfare, the MX missile and antisatellite weapons tests and watered down procurement reforms into inanity. Democrats put off a vote on the $302 billion authorization until after the recess.
Now Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is asking for another caucus two days after Congress reconvenes. He got 22 signatures in a matter of minutes on the House floor. Schumer said he didn't want to be a Democrat if it meant increasing military spending by $10 billion while cutting $1 billion out of housing for the poorest of the poor.
Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is preparing to fire off a "Dear Colleague" letter in which she highlights with a red "Gutted" stamp 22 instances in which House conferees caved in and exhorts her peers to reject the conference report.
Says one House source, "I'm not sure we have the votes to turn it around, but I think we have enough to scare Les Aspin."
The real trick, everyone knows, is to scare the Pentagon, and nobody can figure out the way to do that.