On Thursday, the House of Representatives will vote on a $1.7 billion emergency-aid package for escalation of the war on drugs in Colombia. Initiated by the White House and enthusiastically backed by the House Republican leadership, it is a product of the drug war's perverse priorities and another example of the disturbing link between campaign cash and public policy.
Let's start with the cash being spread around Washington to help grease the wheels for the aid bonanza. The Colombian government hired Vernon Jordan's law firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld (which he has since left), to stump for it on Capitol Hill. Indeed, when the House Appropriations Committee met last week to consider the White House proposal, a member of the committee, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., noticed that an Akin, Gump lobbyist was in attendance. He must have gone away happy because the committee not only approved the president's $1.2 billion request but added an additional $500 million to the pot.
The Colombians have other powerful allies in Washington. Most persistent has been a collection of multinational corporations with operations in Colombia -- including Occidental Petroleum, BP Amoco and Enron -- that have been lobbying both Congress and the administration for a big-bucks package that would serve their business interests there.
And speaking of business interests, more than $400 million of the aid will be spent on the purchase of 63 helicopters manufactured by two U.S. firms -- Sikorsky Aircraft, a subsidiary of United Technologies, and Bell Helicopter Textron -- that have also been playing the Capitol Hill money game. In the past two election cycles, Textron and its employees donated close to a million dollars to both Republicans and Democrats, and United Technologies gave more than $700,000. "It's business for us, and we are as aggressive as anybody," one Bell Helicopter lobbyist told the Legal Times. "I'm just trying to sell helicopters."
Underscoring the incestuous relationship between commerce and drug policy, Tom Umberg, the architect of the administration's Colombian initiative, is now moving from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy to the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, where he will represent Colombia and other Latin American countries on trade issues. In Colombia, as in Washington, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Unfortunately, some good deeds have deadly consequences. Colombia is in the midst of a protracted three-way civil war pitting the Colombian army, which has one of the worst human-rights records in the Western Hemisphere, against leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups, both largely funded by the drug trade. It is the army that will receive the lion's share of the U.S. money -- prompting senior U.S. defense officials to express privately their fear that our military's expanding role in fighting the war on drugs could draw the United States into another Vietnam.
Maybe that's why the Clinton administration decided to introduce the Colombian aid as part of a larger emergency-spending package, bundling the potentially controversial measure with proposals only a coldhearted misanthrope would oppose. Along with the money for Colombia, the bill includes $2.2 billion for relief from natural disasters such as Hurricane Floyd and $854 million for military health care. It's an old legislative ploy designed to squelch debate and force politicians to vote for wasteful -- or even terrible -- measures because they don't want to be painted as being against God, country and disaster relief. And we just saw how George W. Bush was able to twist John McCain's opposition to such legislative chicanery into an attack ad portraying him as indifferent to funding for breast cancer research.
Jackson is one of the members who will nevertheless vote against the bill. "It's absurd," he told me. "There wasn't even any language added tying the aid to human-rights concerns. And [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi's [D-Calif.] amendment to spend equivalent amounts of money on the demand side was defeated during the Appropriations Committee markup -- even though treatment has been proven to be 23 times more cost-effective than eradication of crops and 11 times more cost-effective than interdiction."
The cost of the helicopters alone would provide treatment for almost 200,000 substance abusers or drug-prevention services for more than 4 million Americans. We're about to spend close to $2 billion on Colombia, while here at home 3.6 million addicts are not receiving the treatment they need -- this despite the fact that drug czar Barry McCaffrey's budget is expected to rise to a proposed $19.2 billion next year.
When Richard Nixon -- hardly someone who can be accused of having been soft on crime -- declared a war on drugs in 1971, he directed more than 60 percent of the funds into treatment. Now, we're down to 18 percent. Since 1980, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, the emphasis has turned to interdiction, crop eradication, border surveillance and punishment.
The evidence is clear that it has been a misguided use of resources. But putting $1.7 billion into Colombia, in the middle of a civil war, is more than misguided -- it's nuts. And if it's not voted down in the House on Thursday, it needs to be stopped in the Senate.