Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) stood up on the floor of the Senate and spoke of a sad irony. He referred to the fact that the day that the president of the Soviet Union was named the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, a majority of the Senate was voting hundreds of millions of dollars for the B-2 "stealth" bomber, a plane specifically designed to bounce the Moscow rubble after a nuclear attack.
Who in the world are we going to bomb with those things, he asked rhetorically.
The larger "sad irony" of the budget debate, which has sent George Bush into paroxysms of flipping and flopping and denial, and has set the Senate to round-the-clock writhing, is that so much of it could have been avoided if everyone had cast a cold eye on post-Cold War Pentagon spending and decided it was safe to vote hopes instead of the fears once engendered by the prize-winner in the Kremlin.
The debate, which has featured Democrats pounding the podium and trumpeting the glad news that they have exposed Bush as the tribune of the rich -- so protective that he will veto any bill that fails to favor them -- has also underlined the fact that two people in Washington have veto power.
Bush possesses it by law -- it is written into the Constitution. But Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) possesses it in fact. Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the absolute monarch of the defense budget.
To try to stop a weapons system he likes -- and he's yet to meet one he doesn't -- is to embark on a suicide mission. His extraordinary power is based on the fact that all the Republicans vote reflexively with him and so many Democratic senators are beholden to him for coming into their areas in tough elections to certify their martial credentials that they are his when he needs them.
Back in 1989, when Bush was gearing up for his Inauguration, there was much speculation that he would ask Nunn to become secretary of defense. It never happened. The common wisdom was that he already was.
And since Aug. 2, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the old indulgence towards the Defense Department came flooding back, and the trend to reduce the military budget, epitomized by the House vote to build no more B-2s, was stopped in its tracks. Nunn says the Persian Gulf had "an awakening effect," which he has obviously found refreshing.
It is reliably reported that during the anxious days at Andrews, when the "Super Eight" budget summit negotiators were held under armed guard, Nunn, although not present, was in the room. When they came to the military cuts, "Nunn's numbers" were asked for. They were placed on the table. They were accepted without discussion. The House had voted a figure that was $6 billion lower. It was a matter of no consequence. Nunn's numbers were Holy Writ.
This week, Nunn went into conference with the House, with its contrary views on the B-2, and came out declaring that "the B-2 is alive and well."
In his thoughtful floor speech, Sasser was explaining how we had landed in the fiscal Big Muddy. Two reasons: the Reagan supply-side tax cut of 1981, which resulted in the loss of one hundred billion dollars in revenue, and the Reagan arms buildup, which cost one trillion, four hundred and fourteen billion dollars. Now, of course, people are talking about raising taxes, but not about reducing defense spending. Republicans enjoy much more accusing the Democrats of class warfare, and Democrats would rather raise taxes than cut the Pentagon while troops are in the gulf. Even Bush would rather raise taxes than cut back on funds for the B-2, the MX, "Star Wars" and other anachronisms devised to confound an expansionist, aggressive Soviet Union.
Nunn was not amused by Sasser's "sad irony" reflections.
"The Soviets continue their missile modernization," he said huffily. "Gorbachev deserves that prize, but we have to wait until the threat changes. We cannot base our nuclear policies on the Nobel Peace Prize."
Nunn was able to restore the funds that the House had so unwisely taken out of the Senate Star Wars kitty. The rationale for Star Wars is a bit shaky, but even in this moment of acute pinch, Nunn is not a fan of context, and given to circular technical arguments, such as, "If we don't build the B-2, the vulnerability of the B-1 is increased."
If Congress gave the Pentagon the rigorous scrutiny it applies to Medicare patients and welfare recipients, the chances for a $40 billion budget cut would be better. But with Bush protecting the rich and Nunn defending the military, they are not brilliant. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev would throw his prize money into the pot.