Pentagon Accused Of Punishing House Panel
WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Congress begins its August recess this week, dozens of senators and representatives will be winging overseas in military aircraft on what critics call junkets and members refer to as fact-finding missions.
But Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and members of his powerful Energy and Commerce Committee won’t be enjoying any taxpayer-financed globe-trotting. The Pentagon won’t give them an airplane.
The Department of Defense lobbying office wrote Dingell on July 12 that it was rejecting his travel request ″due to heavy demand for military transportation during the recess period.″
But Rep. Dennis Eckart, D-Ohio, who was scheduled to go on the trip, and committee staffers say there is another reason: Dingell’s success in exposing Pentagon procurement abuses and helping cut military spending requests.
″They pulled the plane,″ Eckart says. ″A friend of mine on (the House) Armed Services (Committee) said the Pentagon explained to him they weren’t happy with the way Mr. Dingell was treating them.″
Dingell, who says this is the first time in his 30 years in Congress that he’s seen a committee chairman’s travel request denied, isn’t assigning any direct blame.
But, he says, ″this is the first time I have seen the stars in the heavens in this particular conjunction. ... The sequence of events is curious.″
The trip planned by Dingell would have been a 27-day excursion to the Soviet Union, Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Spain ″to explore developments in telecommunications, energy supply, transportation and medical research.″
″We had early assurance we had a plane,″ Dingell said. Mike Kitzmiller, the committee’s staff director, added: ″People were very encouraging. This was before Mr. Dingell began discussing the (procurement) problems with General Dynamics on the floor.″
In a series of hearings last year, Dingell made public that the defense contractor had charged taxpayers for such executive benefits as country club dues and kennel fees for dog-boarding.
After House Budget Committee Chairman William Gray III, D-Pa., succeeded earlier this year in slashing Pentagon spending requests, he said that ″the Dingell hearings were the shot in the back of the (Pentagon’s) head.″
The Associated Press asked the Pentagon press office to provide a list of which congressional committees were getting aircraft for August trips and which had had their requests denied.
The response said in part: ″The Department of Defense makes every effort to support every congressional request for military aircraft transportation subject only to aircraft availability. ... Because of frequent changes (in travel plans), it is not possible to accurately predict the number of missions supported prior to departure.″
When asked how officials knew there wasn’t a plane available for Dingell’s panel and what criteria were used to determine who gets an aircraft, the press office said: ″It’s the Department of Defense’s policy that we do not discuss congressional requests for travel.″
Planes, mostly Air Force but some Navy aircraft, are assigned by the Defense Department, with the individual services delegated to serve as the official escorts to congressional parties.
The Air Force said it has been asked by the Pentagon to escort the House Foreign Affairs Committee to Central America; the House Armed Services Committee to the Mediterranean; the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse to South America; and House Majority Leader Jim Wright, D-Texas, to Europe.
The Army said its escort list involved the Senate leadership and four House panels: Foreign Affairs, Appropriations, Agriculture and Ways and Means. The destinations were not revealed.
The Navy has the busiest schedule: Sens. John Chafee, R-R.I., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., will travel to the Soviet Union; Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to Hawaii, Japan, Korea and The Phillipines; Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn., to Europe; Sen. Robert Kasten, R-Wis., to Ethiopia; and Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., to Canada.
Reviewing these lists, Kitzmiller and Eckart say that in competition for a plane, House and Senate leaders and the Armed Service committees clearly outrank Dingell in the unofficial pecking order.
But Eckart insists that ″John outranks some of these people. It’s interesting that even just a select committee would get an aircraft over a standing committee considered by everyone to be one of the premier, blue- ribbon committees of Congress.″
Does Dingell think he outranks some of the people getting planes? ″That would be my assumption,″ he says.
Eckart predicts that the plane dispute will linger on.
″John is not known to forget things quickly,″ he says. ″I wouldn’t be surprised if (Defense Secretary Caspar) Weinberger isn’t asked to testify sometime soon on procurement matters.″
Dingell says he has no specific plans for retaliation, but he adds that he is blessed with a long memory. ″This will not deter us from further inquiry into matters of concern to the committee.″