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Of Pork and Patronage

Democrats are complaining about pork in the Homeland Security bill. But they're really just shilling for their trial lawyer pals.

11:00 PM, Dec 3, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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pork (n) 2. Government funds, appointments, or benefits dispensed or legislated by politicians to gain favor with their constituents.

-American Heritage dictionary

DEMOCRATS are up in arms about the "pork" in the Homeland Security bill that President Bush signed last week. But what they are most upset about isn't really pork at all. The amendments they are complaining about don't dispense cash or paid positions. Instead, they protect vaccine makers, airport screeners, and others from potential lawsuits. In other words, Democrats aren't trying to protect taxpayers' wallets; they're looking after their own biggest campaign contributors--trial lawyers.

Lawyers and law firms were the biggest givers of any industry in the 2002 election cycle. They gave more than $62 million to various campaigns, and 72 percent of that money went to Democrats. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is the biggest individual donor within this category, and a whopping 88 percent of its donations during 2002 went to Democrats, netting the party $2,167,561 from trial lawyers alone. As Bob Novak put it last week on CNN: "Trial lawyers are the major political cash cow for the Democratic party."

Of course, even this massive infusion of cash couldn't banish the Democrats' fear of being labeled "anti-homeland security." So, as a last-ditch effort, Senate Democrats offered an alternative bill, "stripped of pork," as a gesture of goodwill to their contributors. The measure was defeated, 52-47.

The Homeland Security bill as enacted includes protection against lawsuits for airport security companies and makers of screening equipment. Specifically, it limits their liability for any negligence they may have committed on September 11 by permitting hijackers to take box cutters aboard planes. Several families of 9/11 victims have been planning suits that could set a dangerous precedent.

Another provision gives manufacturers of anti-terrorism devices such as bomb detectors and gas masks immunity from lawsuits. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) frets that makers of faulty devices cannot be sued "even if they engage in intentional wrongdoing," but the wording of the law is unclear on this point, emphasizing limited liability for companies that make devices designed to be used in high-risk situations.

Those who make and deliver vaccines that might be used to combat biological attacks will also receive special protections. In the event of an attack, large quantities of a vaccine with dangerous side effects may have to be administered quickly, making companies like Eli Lilly as well as clinics and hospitals vulnerable to lawsuits if something goes wrong. (The smallpox vaccine, for example, is fatal to between 1 to 6 of every 1 million people.)

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) explains that the bill does contain mechanisms for recourse for anyone harmed by a vaccine. "We have a provision that allows for people to go to a government agency and get compensation if they think they have been damaged or harmed by a government-recommended vaccine."

The limitation of liability for vaccine manufacturers may prompt more companies to get into the business of making anti-bioterror agents, as well as encouraging existing suppliers to increase their capacity and stocks of vital drugs and vaccines.

To be sure, there is some real pork in the bill. After all, as Sen. Christopher Dodd said recently on CBS's "Face the Nation," the "Homeland Security bill, the bill the president supported, was 35 pages long. The bill that I've been asked to vote on . . . is 484 pages long." Some of the bill's special interest gifts include: contracts intended for academic research at Texas A&M, contract eligibility for companies that have moved offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes, and $500 million a year in cyber-security research and development grants, most of which will probably end up in the hands of Microsoft.

After final passage of the bill, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said lawmakers from both parties would work during the next Congress to make "corrections and clarifications" in the bill by jettisoning the most egregious pork. But what shouldn't be "corrected" are sensible steps taken to protect companies whose products and services are vital in the war against terrorism.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.