Thursday, November 22, 2001

Neither Ground Zero’s smoky ruins in New York nor the gaping hole in the Pentagon has bolstered the gravitas of America’s political class.

Despite the War on Terror’s vicious enemies and grave risks of further attacks at home and abroad, too many public officials lately have grown more petty and myopic rather than bold and visionary.

On Halloween, for instance, a House-Senate conference committee rejected a worthwhile amendment by Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat, to reallocate $131 million within the Energy Department’s budget to secure and neutralize Russian atomic materials. The former U.S.S.R. still possesses nuclear munitions, enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. Some of these radioactive substances sit in wooden warehouses protected by padlocks, breached fences and guards who have gone unpaid for months.

Scarier still, Osama bin Laden told reporters in 1998 that Muslims have a “religious duty” to acquire nuclear weapons.

The House, however, voted 399 to 29 on Nov. 1 to approve $1.7 billion for Army Corps of Engineers water projects, among other appropriations. With any luck, Americans caught downwind from a terrorist atomic blast someday may wash away radioactive fallout in a federally built canal. Mr. Edwards is still pushing his measure while Washington bickers about presumably more urgent matters.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stands with America in the War on Terror. This has enraged throngs of his Islamic fundamentalist countrymen. Gen. Musharraf now wants the U.S. to reduce its tariffs on textiles from Pakistan, America’s 15th-largest fiber supplier. As the Bush administration tries to help America’s ally, key lawmakers offer Gen. Musharraf this blunt reply: Drop dead, Pervez.

Sens. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and Ernest Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a letter last month that American textile company employees “must not be made pawns in efforts to build an international coalition.” Never mind that Pakistan’s U.S. textile sales, worth just $2 billion annually, plunged 40 percent in the first three weeks of October, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Some 10,000 Pakistani textile workers have been sacked since September 11. What if frenzied mobs of these disaffected laborers surround Gen. Musharraf’s office demanding to know what he has done for them lately? It is in America’s national interest for him to say: “Because I support the U.S., your textile jobs are perfectly safe.” While Gen. Musharraf cannot give his people such reassurances, at least the Carolinas’ trade-protected cotton gins whir in peace. What a wonderful incentive scheme for other Islamic leaders who may wish to defy their populations and help Washington fight terrorism.

As Heritage Foundation analyst Ronald Utt has found, politicians also are devouring the post-September 11 recovery budget as if they were celebrating Thanksgiving. “It’s an open grab bag, so let’s grab,” Rep. Jim Moran, Virginia Democrat, said of the $40 billion in federal rescue funds.

Republican D.C. Council Member Carol Schwartz scolded D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams for seeking only $150 million in federal recovery aid.

“We should be asking for billions with a B. I would run and grab as much as you can legitimately get,” Mrs. Schwartz said. Mr. Williams then requested $900 million. George Pataki, New York’s doltish Republican governor, wants $54 billion in federal terrorist relief money. Beyond justifiable resources for damage repair, Mr. Pataki seeks such inappropriate items as statewide economic stimulus spending and a new high-speed train linking New York City with Upstate Schenectady.

The situation is equally grim in Massachusetts. As Boston’s free-market Pioneer Institute notes, Republican Acting Gov. Jane Swift’s administration has ordered local school systems to eliminate 300 nurses to help plug a $1.35 billion deficit in a state budget that has been overdue since July 1. This measure is ill-conceived while health professionals guard against anthrax, smallpox and other bioterrorist threats. The state legislature, however, managed this month to approve $5 million for private greyhound and thoroughbred race tracks. This legislation funds general operations and an increase in the purses these tracks pay winning gamblers. Perhaps these high-speed hounds will administer vaccines to children in the winner’s circle.

Compare the stupidity and self-absorption of these public officials with the selflessness of New York’s 343 Bravest who perished under the Twin Towers while saving some 25,000 lives. With few exceptions (President Bush and Rudolph Giuliani among them), America’s increasingly infantile politicians do not deserve even to dust the church pews after any fallen fireman’s funeral.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va.

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