Last week, nestled among the reams of amendments to a measure to temporarily fund the government this year was a proposal from Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to strike the funding for the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, lobbied against the measure and the entire Western Pennsylvania House delegation voted against it, but the amendment passed and under the bill the House passed at 4 a.m. Saturday, the NDIC would be kaput.
Decried as a piece of wasteful pork since poweful appropriator Rep. John P. Murtha brought the center to his district in 1993, the $44 million-per-year NDIC has often been targeted for reduction or elimination, but has always survived -- once thanks to the Senate. As soon as the Flake amendment passed, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was out with a statement extolling the virtues of the NDIC and vowing to fight for its funding in the Senate continuing resolution.
So what about Pat Toomey?
Pennsylvania's freshman Republican "is still looking into it," according to an email today from his spokeswoman, and his deliberative approach is not surprising. The case of the NDIC presents a policy conundrum for Toomey, and how he handles it will be a fascinating look at the type of senator he plans to be.
Toomey's predecessor, Sen. Arlen Specter, was an NDIC advocate, and Toomey is making it clear that he's striking a different path than his party-switching foe. He signed onto a ban on earmarks and gave high praise to House Republicans' slash-and-burn approach to the continuing resolution. Thus, it would stand to form that Toomey would be in favor of cutting anything that looks like a piece of pork -- and the symbolism of the late Murtha adds to it. Toomey could come out strongly in favor of the cuts, saying his state must take the hit like everywhere else in the country, and bask in the conservative praise for doing so.
Then again, as Pennsylvania's senator, Toomey is sworn to fight for the state's priorities, and he there are plenty of ways to do it without breaking his pork pledge. This center isn't an earmark, per se, as it's included in the president's budget -- though the Obama administration cut its funding sharply in the 2012 budget. Toomey could also use Critz's research in support of the center, which isn't so much about helping Johnstown's economy as how the center coordinates data across federal agencies and serves unique purposes that would have to be recreated at considerable cost elsewhere if the NDIC dies. Also, because of the much lower cost of living, it's downright thrifty for the federal government to put the center in Johnstown instead of D.C.
A potential middle way approach on this issue would be for Toomey to support the president's reduced budget request, while fighting to keep the NDIC's funding in the continuing resolution. Coming from the cost-conscious GOP class of 2010, his voice might hold extra sway in his caucus and provide valuable bipartisan ammunition for Casey. Then again, it could backfire in claims of hypocrisy from the right and his colleauges could ignore his parochial pleas.
Similar to his approach to the Tea Party Caucus, this is one to watch.
[UPDATE: Feb. 22 10:26 a.m.: The NDIC's budget is actually $44 million, the original quoted $34 million would be the figure rescinded in the seven-month continuing resolution. Also, the House -- with Murtha throwing his weight around -- was the usual bulwark against stripping funding from the NDIC, though the Senate was the savior in 2007.]