WASHINGTON, D.C. - "Let's all go barmy, live off the Army" sang Mack the Knife and his friends in The Threepenny Opera.

They must be in town. Come to think of it, they must have gotten elected to Congress, which has been acting barmier-than-usual, thanks to the armed forces.

It started in March, when the Defense Department told Congress that "environmental restrictions are stripping away at realistic training," so the Pentagon should be exempt from parts of several laws, including the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

For example, the military said, in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act at the Barry Goldwater Range in Arizona, the Air Force "redirects or cancels 30 percent of live-drop missions every year to avoid jeopardizing the Sonoran pronghorn (antelope)."

But here's where things get barmy ("Barm," for the unaware, is the foam on beer; so barmy is "foamy", or "daft"). Existing law provides a remedy. Under Section 7J of the ESA, the Defense Department could seek a waiver from the law's provisions. It has never done so, not anywhere.

Asking for waivers in the case-by-case manner is a pain in the neck. Bureaucracies love blanket exemptions, and the political strategists in the Pentagon know that these days Congress rarely bothers with careful examination of legislative proposals. In the House of Representatives, especially, a proposition that pleases the majority leadership gets passed with little analysis by committee members or staff.

Or maybe even by its own authors. Editing could have revealed that this Defense Department proposal might not even solve its problem at the Goldwater Range. The bill would exempt the Pentagon from having to set aside critical habitat, but not from the ban on killing endangered animals, according to Michael Senatore, the litigation director at Defenders of Wildlife. But, Senatore says, there is no designated critical habitat at the Goldwater Range, only antelope.

Well, that's the cost of acting quickly, which the Pentagon planners obviously wanted to do. Because another thing they understood was that the current mood won't last forever. These days they can ask for almost anything. After all, with troops "in harm's way," who would say them nay?

Well, the National Association of (state) Attorneys General, for openers. In a letter to Military Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Joel Hefley, Atty. Gen. Ken Salazar of Colorado pointed out on behalf of the NAAG that all federal environmental laws include "flexibility to balance environmental protection with other federal priorities," and that the Pentagon proposals could have "adverse impacts on human health and on the environment." State officials are not without clout, and the committee removed from the bill the exemptions from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

No sooner had the Pentagon absorbed this partial defeat than it was confronted with another example of the dangers of quick-and-dirty legislating: Once that game begins, anybody can play it.

"Anybody," in this case, was Rep. James V. Hansen of Utah, who has his own agenda. Here is where things got really barmy. Hansen proposed an amendment - actually a major piece of substantive legislation - to (a) give the Pentagon and the state unprecedented power over the management of several million acres of federal land in Utah; and (b) create a new 500,000-acre Utah "wilderness" area where the Defense Department would be able to maintain communications facilities and ban civilians.

Barmiest of all, his proposal * absent hearings, evaluation by committee staff, or support from the military * was accepted by the Armed Services Committee and became part of the bill passed by the House.

Nor was Hansen the only free-lancer. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona was another. Kolbe wanted to make sure that Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona would be held responsible only for the water used on its base, not the water pumped by its neighbors, even though the neighbors are military contractors, their employees, and associated service providers. All those folks are pumping so much water from the ground that the San Pedro River - the last undammed, wild river in the Southwest - is in danger of drying up and dying, taking a few species with it. Rebuffed by Armed Services, Kolbe ran over to a Resources Committee subcommittee and got the exemption into the Interior Department supplemental budget.

The Hansen and Kolbe measures might not survive in the final Defense Department supplemental budget bill, the vehicle for all this legislative legerdemain. The Senate Armed Services Committee's version all but ignores the Pentagon's entreaties about environmental laws. So Defense lobbyists will have to try to get the House-passed provisions enacted by amendment from the Senate floor.

For this debate, tentatively scheduled for right after Memorial Day, the Pentagon has a politically potent argument: "American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are becoming less ready, and that makes them vulnerable," in the words of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Ray DuBois.

But in mid-May came a published report about a General Accounting Office document which concludes that environmental laws have had no negative impact on military training. The sources of this account were un-named, but no one rushed to deny it, and on careful reading, the Pentagon's own "talking points" warn only of prospective dangers. They do not claim that the laws have diminished the proficiency of today's forces. The pilots who recently bombed near Kabul and Kandahar, the special forces troops climbing the hills near Khost, do not seem short of acquired skills.

And for all the acclaim given the military these days, the electorate seems unconvinced by the Pentagon's complaints. According to a survey by the respected Zogby polling firm, a whopping 85 percent of the folks think the military should have to comply with environmental laws.

Barmy as they could be, Mack the Knife and his friends had their own remedy for popular opposition: "And if the population should greet us with indignation, we'll chop 'em to bits because we like our hamburgers raw."

But the Pentagon and the Congress can't do that. Not yet. Not quite.

 

Jon Margolis keeps a skeptical eye on the nation's capital from Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jon Margolis