Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tsunamis and Robots and Earmarks (oh my!)

The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant two weeks ago. Lacking power to the cooling systems, concern about the integrity of the nuclear rods is in question. Repair crews dare not risk approaching the cooling ponds to assess the situation for fear of radiation exposure, while low levels of radiation are beginning to affect the region. Without extensive repairs the power plant could turn that part of Japan into a virtual wasteland.

Enter the robots. MSNBC reported Monday that Japan Ground Self Defense Forces requested robots from iRobot (Bedford, Massachusetts)—two each of the 510 PackBot and 710 Warrior models—to help survey the environment in and around the plant. These “battle tested” robots were developed to assist combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to assess suspected explosive devices and explore caves and other areas where enemy troops might be located. According to an NPR story “Once the robots get inside [the nuclear plant], they might use their cameras to inspect the condition of the containment vessels around the reactors or take samples to check the radiation levels.”

Last week we highlighted the role earmarks played in the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program that helps to provide early warnings and disaster preparedness for the states of the Pacific West.

This week we point to another earmark-related irony of the Japanese disaster: The defense related iRobots that will be used in Japan were developed with the support of earmarks requested by members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. According to public sources the company received $2,000,000 in 2008 alone to help develop the Warrior model that will now be used in Japan to help address the nuclear crisis.

Often maligned by reporters as “parochial” and characterized as “pet projects,” earmarks often result in technologies that help Americans and people around the world respond to difficult challenges. Another one of those programs the Pentagon “didn’t want” –like the Predator Drone—has become an important tool for addressing defense and non-defense-related challenges. Earmarks can provide an important countervailing force to the not-so-always-perfect judgment of executive branch experts who often dismiss nascent technologies.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tsunamis and Earmarks

The Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii
The massive earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami activity in the Pacific reminds those who live in coastal communities of the sudden, awesome, and deadly power of nature. Tsunamis in 1946, 1960, and 1964 killed hundreds of Americans in coastal states; a large earthquake in 1992 off of California’s coast caused concern that tsunamis might make the West Coast vulnerable to even larger, more destructive, and more deadly tsunami events.

In 1994 Congress directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to lead an inter-agency effort to promote tsunami awareness and preparedness effort. The effort joined the U.S. Geological Survey and the Federal Emergency Management Administration with the state emergency management agencies in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. In 1997, as a result of the initial leadership of Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) (the by-then-retired Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee) on the issue, an initial earmark of $2.3 million established the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP).

Predictably, anti-earmark crusader Senator John McCain (R-AZ) took to the Senate floor in July 1997 to “object strenuously” to the inclusion of, denounce, among other projects included in an appropriations bill, including the earmark for the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program. McCain specifically objected to “$2.3 million to reduce tsunami risks to residents and visitors in Oregon, Washington, California, Hawaii, and Alaska.”[1]

A coastal community overwhelmed, 2004

In 2004 more than 200,000 people were killed by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. The specter of a similar disaster occurring in the U.S. pushed the Bush Administration to support the Tsunami Warning and Education Act of 2006. In effect the Act endorsed and built upon the foundation laid by the NTHMP through a series of earmarks over the course of a decade. In the absence of the extensive interagency and state-federal partnerships forged by the earmark-supported NTHMP the U.S. would have been caught flatfooted by the recent tsunami. Instead coastal communities on the West Coast awoke to tsunami warnings and at-risk communities were evacuated preventing serious casualties.

Tsunami damage in Hawaii, 2011
As with the Predator Drone, the Human Genome Project, mine resistant vehicles, and many other projects first championed by Congress, executive branch actors in Washington, DC resisted Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Project. For years the project was supported through earmarks promoted by Senators Inouye (D-HI) and Stevens (R-AK) who were seeking to be responsive to the real dangers facing their constituents. In the end the seemingly narrow interests of members of Congress (often derided for their perceived profligacy by the media and “watchdog” groups) produced a program of national importance.

The executive branch is not the sole repository of all good ideas. Members of Congress are uniquely suited to identify issues of import to the communities they represent. It is unlikely that a bureaucrat sitting behind a desk in Washington, DC will spend much time thinking about tsunami dangers to coastal communities a continent away. The American system of representation positions of members of Congress to press the federal government to respond to local and regional issues and concerns. The recent moratorium on earmarks undermines the ability of members to be responsive to these concerns and, perhaps, the ability of our system to generate innovative approaches to pressing national problems.

[1] Congressional Record, July 24, 1997, S8076.