Avian Flu: Steep Learning Curve for Congress
Posted by Lorelei Kelly
On Monday, I was visiting a friend in the House of Representatives--where approximately half of the staff are walking on sunshine and the other half have the sickly look of a pithed biology frog who knows what's coming (those would be the Republicans) As I sat in the front office, I chatted with the receptionist intern. Hill interns have a much more mundane existence than their counterparts in other branches of government. They spend a lot of time receiving and opening mail. Although it's nothing compared to an impeachment trial, this job has become an above average thrill since the anthrax attacks during 2001-2002. All Capitol Hill mail is now irradiated--the crispy yellow pages and nuked envelope paste adds to the excitement of what lies beneath the letter knife.
Anyway, while sitting there, I noticed the intern open a pack of wall posters from the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University. They were handsome, instructive public health posters about how to recognize bird flu and what to do about it. My mom is a public health nurse, so I looked at them covetously and then watched with dismay as-- PLOP-- they went into the garbage can. He then moved on to open a stack of boxes, each of which contained several 300 page hardbound volumes entitled "Ronald Reagan: Late a President of the United States" The books were the compiled memorial tributes delivered in Congress last June upon the death of Reagan, published by the Government Printing Office. I noticed there were far too many to be of use in one office. Maybe China will accept some as barter on our debt.
But back to the avian flu. Throwing the posters into the trash pretty much symbolizes how Congress has responded to new security issues since the end of the Cold War. Global threats in particular just don't fit into the antique structure of Congress, and because they don't fit into the jurisdictions of existing committees, they fall between the cracks. This is particularly true of trans-national security issues. Such toics--like avian flu-- cross more than one committee's interests. If you were to narrow it down, the committees that handle security are primarily foreign relations and defense. In Hill speak, the defense issues are handled by the HASC and the SASC. The foreign relations by the HIRC and SFRC. These oversight plans and jurisdictions are instructive. The foreign relations plans are pages and pages long. The armed services jurisdictions and oversight plans are quite a bit shorter, especially in the Senate where it is one paragraph plus change. These descriptions don't reflect the fact that the military is involved in just about every important foreign policy issue that exists today. Lots and lots of issues don't get their full measure of attention because they don't "fit".
I attended the Princeton Project on National Security conference last week along with Suzanne. On Friday, a happy yelp arose amidst the gathering as one participant announced that the Senate passed legislation on Thursday to add $4 billion to fight avian flu. This money was tacked onto the defense appropriations bill for 2006. Now, I think that's great, but why can't we fund a solid and generous public health system like most normal countries? Countries where public health is a high priority are far better prepared and defended against global pandemics and biological terrorism. Why does avian flu only get the urgency it deserves on a defense bill during wartime? Something is wrong with this picture.
On a progressive note, check out the House Armed Services site on Committee Defense Review This panel of Members convenes on a parallel track to the official committee hearings in order to bring up all sorts of new threats and security challenges. It is bipartisan and, as Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher says, a chance to "look at what challenges we're confronting rather than weapons programs we want to advance." Fine words and an auspicious start.
p.s. I rescued the posters from the trash and now they are featured in several Washington offices. I also have a book of Reagan speeches.