Border games 

Playing politics with a $15 million pork project

Montanans have heard for years how our members of Congress take credit for securing appropriations for Montana projects. Sen. Max Baucus is famous for claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in highway funding projects every year while Rep. Denny Rehberg claimed credit for funds this year while voting against the bill that provided them. Our newest senator, Jon Tester, has likewise slipped effortlessly into the pattern. But now, both Baucus and Tester find themselves locked in a tangled web with the Obama administration over who did what to secure which funds—and the truth of the matter remains elusive.

The issue of securing "pork," as such home-state projects are known in Congress, hit a rough patch last week when the Washington Post reported that a remote Montana border crossing had received $15 million in Homeland Security funding for upgrades. The crossing, at Whitetail, Montana, hasn't been improved in its 45 years of existence, which is hardly surprising considering it gets about 3 cars a day in cross-border traffic.

Tester, in one of his first acts as a U.S. senator, requested a security review of Montana's northern border. Some might credibly wonder just what we have to fear from Canada, a country that has been one of our greatest allies, populated by our friendliest neighbors. That would have been a great question to ask any time in the last two centuries of our peaceful co-existence, but after 9/11 and the mass hysteria induced by George Bush and Dick Cheney, those kinds of questions were looked at as unpatriotic. Unfortunately, Tester fell prey to D.C.'s paranoia.

It should come as no surprise that, try as they may, it was pretty tough for Homeland Security to see Canadians as much of a serious security threat to the U.S. But there was the issue of cross-border trafficking in illegal drugs, the primary one being the potent marijuana known as "B.C. Bud," which is highly prized by pot smokers in this country, who thus maintain the demand that fuels the supply. Since growing and possessing marijuana is not against the law in British Columbia, it's not surprising that entrepreneurs would want to take advantage of the market to the south.

And so our friendly neighbors to the north routinely drag hockey bags filled with bud across the border and go back home with pockets full of cash. Willing sellers, willing buyers, and all they want is to remain pretty much invisible. As far as a security concern goes, well, there's never been a recorded death attributable to marijuana use and Montana just happens to be a state that legalized the use of medical marijuana by an overwhelming vote of the people.

None of that fits in with the fear of terrorism, however, so some new phrases had to be coined to make our northern border seem dangerous. Tester himself liked to use the phrase "our porous northern border" to describe the endless miles of wheat fields that spread on both sides of the 49th parallel. In fact, in his recent press statements, he went overboard, proclaiming: "We've pushed to make sure that border is as secure as possible. We are only as secure as our weakest point. It only takes one terrorist."

Really, "it only takes one terrorist" to do what, exactly? Unfortunately, it is this sad mimicking of the Bush-Cheney fear tactics that now has Tester embroiled in a serious conflict with the White House. Even worse, Baucus echoed those remarks, saying the Canadian border "cannot be a backdoor for terrorism and other illegal activity." It's important, at this juncture, to note that "other illegal activity"—like smuggling in some pot—is now on par with terrorism in Baucus' mind.

To make a long story short, after both Tester and Baucus claimed credit for the $15 million in pork for Whitetail, Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona and now Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, found herself in an embarrassing situation. If two senators from a state with less than a million people claimed they were responsible for securing the money, what does that say about the validity of Homeland Security's threat rating system and the prioritized list of which threats should be addressed first? Well, it says politics as usual continue under President Obama, who promised to change the way Washington does business.

The issue came to light at the request of an investigation into the funding of such projects made by California Rep. Darrell Issa, who is the senior Republican member on a House oversight committee that is reviewing the use of stimulus funds. If a three-car per day border station in the middle of nowhere can get $15 million, Issa wants to know who got bumped to provide the bucks for Whitetail.

In a classic D.C. cover-up, Napolitano's office initially denied ever meeting with Tester or Baucus. But when the press investigated, both Baucus and Tester confirmed they had met with Napolitano to urge funding for the Canadian border and Tester even issued a press release taking credit for $77 million in Montana projects.

Issa has made a request to determine if politics played a role in the appropriation, asking Napolitano to "disclose the criteria DHS used to determine who got what and why." So far, Napolitano has refused to do so.

It is logical to believe that Tester and Baucus used their positions to continue the long-standing practice of securing appropriations for their home state despite that, at least in regard to Whitetail, it appears to do little more than add to the burgeoning national debt which has skyrocketed to $12 trillion and is projected to double in the next 10 years.

What's really disturbing, however, is why the Obama administration and Secretary Napolitano won't just release the data requested by Issa. Simply revealing the truth might indeed prove embarrassing for the Obama administration, but it's a lot better than cover-ups and outright lies.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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