Ron Packard, Military Whore

Beneath the South County Congressman's Mr. Vanilla exterior beats the heart of an old-fashioned, log-rolling, back-scratching, pork barreling special-interest pol

Recall for a moment one of the Vietnam era's most horrifying images: a Vietnamese girl-pre-adolescent diminutive-eyes slits of terror, mouth frozen midscream. She's running naked on the wet road from her village. Behind her, trees burn like torches; smoke rises like a dark storm.U.S. aircraft on a tragically flawed mission to defoliate and burn out Communist guerrillas had doused her village with U.S.-manufactured napalm. The napalm was burning through her skin, turning her own body against itself, trapping her soul inside. Now project that image onto San Clemente, and imagine a similar girl hotfooting it stark naked out of north San Diego County, where-and this is where imagination stops and a nightmarish reality begins-the U.S. Department of the Navy stores 22 tons of deactivated napalm bombs in open fields near Fallbrook. Critics writing on an Internet site dedicated to the controversy charge that the "deteriorating napalm firebombs" pack an incendiary punch close to the power of the Hiroshima atom bomb and say the devices have sprung more than 3,000 leaks, giving off cancerous benzene fumes. Three official Navy plans have failed to destroy the bombs-34,100 of them, the last supply of the most controversial weapon from the Vietnam War. When Navy officials announced in December that they would embark on a two-year, $24 million disposal plan that would involve shipping the napalm by train to a military contractor in Chicago, the napalm hit the fan. Trains carrying the napalm left San Diego County in February, but in the meantime, Midwesterners had decided they didn't want the stuff, either, so it was turned back. The media started calling it the "railcar to nowhere." In San Diego County, attention turned to longtime Republican Congressman Ron Packard, whose district includes the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station. The Fallbrook Napalm Web Page charged that Packard had 15 years in Congress to do something about cleaning up the bombs in his district and should have succeeded because of his power over the military as chairman of the House Military Construction Subcommittee. Writing on the Web site, La Jolla psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kripke charges, "If Packard had insisted that the cleanup take place years ago, we would not be worrying about it today." Kripke, a Democrat seeking the congressional seat occupied by Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Escondido), claims on the site that Packard had not appropriated "sufficient funding so that the Navy can remove and destroy the napalm safely."Packard responded, sort of, by issuing a short statement that reads: "I will continue to make sure that there is no potential health threat to residents as the Navy fulfills its promise to remove all of the napalm." The statement also notes that Packard's appropriations committee approved a $9.2 billion military-construction funding bill in 1997 that provided $305 million for San Diego County military activities and that in that spending bill, he added language urging the Navy to speed up the napalm-removal process. Of course, he didn't threaten to hold back his support for any of that $305 million until the Navy complied. A couple of months later, Packard blamed the entire incident on President Bill Clinton, suggesting that pressure from congressmen in Indiana and Illinois led the White House to convince the Chicago company to break its contract with the Navy. Fortunately, that shipment finally found a home in July in a small industrial town 15 miles east of Houston. Packard and Cunningham issued a joint statement that said, in part, "We plan to continue to insist that the Navy proceed as planned to process and dispose of the remaining canisters of napalm with as little delay as possible."You'd think 35,000 benzene-dripping napalm firebombs would spur at least one Democrat to take a run at Packard. But you'd be wrong. With Republicans outnumbering Democrats 2 to 1 in his district-and no Democratic opponent on the Nov. 3 ballot-Packard will not only cruise to his ninth victory, but will also probably stay in office until he dies or retires. Packard was first elected to Congress in 1982, which makes the white-haired, 67-year-old Mormon the grandfather of Orange County's delegation, a group that includes a rising GOP star, a lame-duck felon, a fervent pork buster, a surfin' right-winger and a controversial Latina. In that crowd, Packard almost disappears. One wag put it best when he described the eight-term Oceanside Republican, whose 48th District includes parts of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, as "Mr. Vanilla." His low-key style has been compared to that of a mild-mannered neighborhood dentist, which is fitting, since that's what he was before being elected to Congress.But beneath the Mr. Vanilla exterior beats the heart of an old-fashioned, log-rolling, back-scratching, pork-barreling special-interest pol. As his spinelessness on the napalm issue suggests, Packard is a Pentagon whore.That's not how Packard himself would put it, naturally. He would point (correctly) to his record as one of Congress's most conservative members. He's against all abortions, affirmative action and the Internal Revenue Service. He's for mandatory school prayer, trying youths accused of felonies as adults, more federal prisons, scrapping most gun laws, posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, and state compensation for land owners whose desired use for their property runs afoul of environmental regulations. Despite those provocative stands, Packard does not grab newspaper headlines so much as he grabs power. Shortly after being sworn in for his first term, the self-professed "tax fighter" sought a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee-the arm of Congress that actually divvies up the federal budget. He didn't get it for 10 years. Then a San Diego congressman retired, and Packard got the committee seat that would turn him into a pork-barrel hero. He has done some good for his district while on the Appropriations Committee-he got funding to repair flood damage at Camp Pendleton; expand the Border Patrol; work on the $1.5 billion Santa Ana River flood-control project in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties; and build a $200 million, 12,000-space parking garage in Anaheim that functions as a hub for express-bus and carpool commuters. (That one has an added bonus: it also serves guests at Disneyland.)Time has been good to Packard. When the Republican Party-for the first time in four decades-took control of the House of Representatives in 1995, Packard's seniority landed him the chairmanship of one of the 13 Appropriations subcommittees that oversee parts of the federal budget. The subcommittee chairmen are so powerful that they're known as "cardinals"; Packard now regularly gets his ring kissed by fellow lawmakers seeking money for their pet projects.In the last Congress, Packard chaired the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and portrayed himself as a take-no-shit government waste cutter. Indeed, while in the post, he made significant cuts to congressional staff; eliminated a congressional-support agency; and attacked such congressional perks as free haircuts, car washes and ice delivery. Packard continues to advocate the elimination of federal funding for arts and greatly reduced allocations for programs dedicated to the AIDS fight, the environment, foreign aid, job training and welfare. During the same session, however, Packard displayed signs of his undying affection for the military. He helped secure $788 million for California in the fiscal 1996 military construction bill, including $113 million for Camp Pendleton, which is in his district, and $39 million for bachelor enlisted quarters at nearby Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. Congressional Quarterly noted that Packard "nursed his habit of dipping into the federal cookie jar to procure goodies for his district."For the current 105th Congress, Packard engineered a power grab that moved him directly into the center of Pentagon action, ascending to chair of the Military Construction Subcommittee. He not only can-and has-divert millions in taxpayer money to his home district's Marine base for construction, but he also is in a position to milk other favors beneficial to local military interests because, sooner or later, other lawmakers and lobbyists will be lining up in front of his subcommittee looking for handouts. Packard, then, is a classic Republican-he tends to be a conservative in all that does not harm his friends. In this case, his friends tend to be members of the military-industrial complex. On a questionnaire for the Washington, D.C.-based Project Vote Smart, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to providing accurate information about politicians, Packard put a check next to "greatly increase" when it came to funding all defense-related categories, including military hardware, CIA appropriations, defense-plant conversions, new-weapons development, pay for active-duty personnel, military space-shuttle missions, armed-forces personnel training and the National Missile Defense Program. His zeal for all things military also extends to his voting record on the House floor. In June, he voted for the $270.4 billion bill for defense programs (fiscal 1999) and the $8.2 billion in 1999 military-construction and base-closing appropriations, which was $450 million more than Clinton requested. Of the latter vote, the Associated Press reported, "The home state of Representative Ron Packard (R-California), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees military construction, would get $176.3 million, the third-highest amount for any state." While Packard's coastal district is predominantly conservative, it also includes some of Laguna Beach and all of Dana Point, San Clemente, Oceanside and Carlsbad. Republicans may outnumber Democrats in those towns, but when it comes to protecting their own precious shoreline, everyone is suddenly a rabid environmentalist. Packard has been astute enough to recognize this and work behind-the-scenes with his Appropriations colleagues to line up support and funding for a study of beach-erosion problems along the South County coast. He has already secured $9.63 million in federal funding this year to replenish local beaches. And he's come out against what could potentially be the worst environmental nightmare in South OC history: an international airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which neighbors his district. Packard believes Southern California needs a new airport but that March Air Force Base in Riverside County would be a better location.Though Packard has always tried to bolster his environmental bona fides, he invariably reveals that his ultimate loyalty is to the military-industrial complex. Take the highly charged debate over a Camp Pendleton proposal to build junior-officer housing on a bluff overlooking San Clemente's Trestles, one of the county's most pristine surfing beaches. The Surfrider Foundation opposes the Marine plan and has tried unsuccessfully to get base commanders to move the project to some other part of their sprawling camp. Despite Surfrider's charge that the environmental-review process for the project was tainted, Packard continues to support it.More evidence: in a recent presentation before the Oceanside City Council, Packard warned officials that, despite his hard work to defend the wilderness, there was an enemy on the horizon-not developers, but Clinton, who (Packard claimed) was poised to use the line-item veto to undo all the good environmental work Packard had accomplished in the federal budget.Packard was right-sort of: Clinton did use the executive veto. But he used it to line out 38 military-construction projects. It was like using the pen as a scalpel to cut out Packard's heart. In February, the congressman voted with the majority to override Clinton's veto. The Senate followed suit. Pushing that pork helped Packard get a mention in the 1998 Pig Book, which is published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, which Representative Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) has called "the premier waste-fighting organization in America." While reporting that military-construction pork dropped in 1998 to $921 million from $930 million the previous year, Pig Book noted that "the $921 million included $287 million worth of unrequested items vetoed by Clinton." Included in that $287 million was "$20.6 million added by the House for projects at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in the district of House Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ron Packard: $16,120,000 for bachelor enlisted quarters and $4,480,000 for a child-development center."Sometimes Packard's appetite for pork brings him into conflict with his more fiscally restrained colleagues. In 1997, for example, his cross-county colleague Representative Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) voted against legislation authored by Packard because it included money for two gyms at military bases in Georgia and Louisiana. Royce, who co-chairs the nonprofit Pork Busters Coalition, considered the expenditure wasteful and vowed to write an amendment eliminating the gyms, but he didn't get his proposal to the floor in time. Packard's military-construction measure passed 395 to 14-with the gyms. Mr. Vanilla allowed himself a moment of self-congratulation. "There are no hard feelings," Packard reportedly told The Orange County Register. "I had a lot of people lined up to oppose Ed's amendment. I would have defeated it anyway."Packard's defense-related votes during the current session have not strayed from the conservative line. He opposed the use of Defense Department funds to assign any U.S. military personnel to duty with the United Nations Rapidly Deployable Mission Headquarters and also opposed privately funded abortions for military women and dependents at overseas military hospitals. When the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, which Packard also sits on, began debating cuts in family-planning assistance for enlisted women, the former Mormon missionary and strong abortion foe declared that "many members do not support family planning, period." Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) asked Packard whether he was opposed even to family planning in the United States. "I am," he answered.In 1997, Packard voted against a freeze of fiscal 1998 defense spending to 1997 levels; the shutdown of the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas, the Georgia base that trains troops for authoritarian governments in Central and South America; and the retirement of the B-2 Bomber. Packard would not even oblige the Pentagon's request that $331 million in advance funding for nine B-2s be eliminated so the bucks could be diverted to National Guard aircraft, Army breast-cancer research and deficit reduction. Congressmen in states that would build, maintain or receive the B-2s had lobbied to save the planes.Packard gets high marks from pro-defense-industry special-interest groups such as the Center for Security Policy ("a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization to stimulate and inform the national and international debate about all aspects of security policy") and the American Security Council (a "public-policy research organization focusing on defense, foreign-policy and economic issues"). Likewise, peaceniks such as PeacePAC (a grassroots political-action committee bent on electing a Congress committed to preventing nuclear war) and the Professional's Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control have flunked the congressman.Peaceniks aren't alone in criticizing Packard. As we have seen, his porcine habits arouse the ire of some conservatives. Other conservatives are frustrated by his lack of vision. Sitting in what's arguably the safest congressional seat in one of the most solidly Republican regions of the country, Packard is not among even the first few dozen names you'd put on a list of politicians really pushing the conservative agenda. The only legislation Packard has introduced so far this year were the military-construction appropriations for 1999 and a resolution recognizing the 50th anniversary of the National Institute of Dental Research. The previous year, besides a couple of military appropriations, he introduced amendments to the IRS code regarding aviation excise taxes and tax deductions on home sales and-for him-two fairly high-profile bills: one prohibiting illegal aliens from obtaining federal housing assistance and the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act, which shielded church donations made by bankrupt individuals from being claimed by creditors.But on military matters, he is aggressive-and well-rewarded. Federal campaign-disclosure records show that of the $185,211 in political-action committee (PAC) contributions Packard received in 1997-1998, $42,250 came from the defense industry, including Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics.Nor is the military alone in blessing Packard. Other supporters include the National Right to Life Committee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Associated Builders & Contractors, the National Rifle Association, and the League of Private Property Owners. According to Project Vote Smart, those groups reported that on House votes they considered most important, Packard went with their preferred position 100 percent of the time.Less visible but just as important as that support are Packard's friends in the hugely lucrative transportation construction industry. As a member of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Packard has publicly vowed to fight for more federal highway funds for Orange County. Having a say on those disbursements has made the congressman a good guy to get in your corner if you're, oh, building a 16-mile, $644 million, natural-habitat-decimating toll road through South County. And transportation firms were the top PAC contributors to Packard in 1997-1998, doling out $51,980. They get what they pay for: when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers recently refused to sign off on extending the last leg of the Foothill Toll Road through pristine portions of San Clemente because of concerns that it might not alleviate traffic-but certainly would damage the habitat of myriad threatened and endangered species-Packard came to the transportation corridor's rescue. In July, he reportedly filed an amendment that stated the agencies' concerns about traffic are frivolous and outside their jurisdiction. The new Packard language amended a transportation appropriation bill to restrict agency comments to those matters over which the agency has jurisdiction. "I will not stand by while federal regulatory agencies raise frivolous or illegitimate issues designed solely to kill this much-needed project," Packard reportedly said. The Army Corps of Engineers dropped its concerns soon after. The EPA is mulling its next move.With the federal highway project set to expire this year, Congress put the reauthorization of the funding measure to a vote in the spring. According to Congressman David R. Obey (D-Wisconsin), the minority party member with the most seniority on the Appropriations Committee, the six-year, $216 billion transportation and infrastructure budget plan oozed pork. Funding was authorized for 1,800 projects; during the past 40 years, Congress has approved a total of only 1,000, said Obey, who was one of only 80 congressmen to vote against the reauthorization. It was an election-year Christmas tree for members; projects were sprinkled throughout the congressional districts. There was even funding for a brewery on the East Coast and $9 billion to build a highway in Canada.Packard enthusiastically supported the reauthorization. He went so far as to hail the great Satan Clinton when the president signed the measure in July. Noting that he was "the only California Republican on the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee," Packard proudly listed the local projects included in the bill, including $7.5 million for state Route 76 in north San Diego County, $6 million for interchange work on state Route 78 in Oceanside, and $1.5 million for the Cabot-Camino Capistrano Bridge Project. What Packard didn't mention was where Congress found the money for all that pork. According to Obey, some of the money came from a reduction in veterans' benefits. Packard, who argues that members of the armed forces need the best of everything, seems your best friend while you're in uniform. Once you're out of uniform, you're apparently a mere special interest, somewhere down his list of priorities between the National Endowment for the Arts and AIDS funding. It makes one wonder what Packard would do if there were a conflict between military officers and highway builders.Packard hasn't faced a serious challenge since 1982. Then, he was mayor of Carlsbad, and he became only the fourth person in history elected to Congress as a write-in candidate, outpolling Republican John Crean and Democrat Roy "Pat" Archer. Opponents charged that Packard got busloads of Mormons from other parts of California and even Utah to man every polling place and hand out pencils. Opponents since then have been reasonably intimidated by the congressman's war chest. As of June 30, Packard had raised $268,834-$176,960 of it from PACs-and spent $201,484. His challengers, Carlsbad financial planner Daniel L. Muhe, the Libertarian Party nominee, and Dana Point resident Sharon K. Miles of the Natural Law Party, reported no contributions or expenditures. Actually, Packard gets his seat for a steal. The average House winner spent $673,000 in 1996. In that election, the number of votes for Packard's three opponents (including Democrat Dan Farrell) combined were about half of what the incumbent congressman pulled in. Perhaps serious opponents await Packard's retirement. He did undergo emergency heart surgery in 1993 (emerging from the sickbed sooner than expected to cast his vote against final passage of Clinton's budget). And the congressman put his John Hancock on the GOP's vaunted "Contract With America," a major plank of which was a demand for term limits. Packard previously stated he favored a constitutional amendment to impose a 12-year lifetime limit on congressional service in both the House and Senate. But that was before he became a cardinal. On Project Vote Smart's 1998 questionnaire, Packard answered "no" to the question: Do you support a constitutional term-limit amendment? He's Orange County's for life. And a Packard may be on the ballot long after that. He's reportedly grooming one of his sons to take over the seat once the mild-mannered dentist with the hankering for pork steps down.

 
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