Clippings: Take a bird walk through the budget

My daughters’ fourth-grade teacher liked to take the children on bird walks. These weren’t strolls through the countryside to observe the avian fauna; they were intellectual rambles through the landscape of all human knowledge. They would be talking about one thing, a question about a certain point would lead into a diversion about another thing, a clarification to something discovered in that neighborhood would lead them down a path in a new direction, and so on.
This past weekend I needed a diversion from all of the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations and so I sought refuge in a bird walk. Seeking terra incognita, I turned to the Omnibus Spending Bill passed by Congress on Thursday. Why not? It is a huge, multi-variegated document that actually affects the lives of every American, not to mention untold numbers of people around the world. And, they say, nobody reads it.
One of the first things that became apparent to me was that the scale of the issues addressed in this new law are pretty much beyond the comprehension of most mere mortals. For instance, the sum allocated for federal inspection of meat, poultry and eggs is about $1 billion. I’ll never spend a billion dollars; everyone in my family and all of their in-laws together will never spend a billion dollars; I’ll never know anyone who spends a billion dollars (once, in a former life, I met the computer billionaire Michael Dell, but even he doesn’t spend a billion dollars in a single year). Worth noting is the fact that the figure allocated for inspections is surprisingly precise: $1,014,871,000. Were there, perhaps, two lawmakers haggling on the floor of the Senate over whether the number should be $1,014,873,000 or $1,014,869,000 — a difference of 2-one millionths of a percent?
There are some very big round numbers in the federal budget. Amount for guaranteed farm ownership loans: $2,000,000,000. But dig into that allocation and you see curious details. For instance, $60 million is set aside for boll weevil eradication (an important measure to ensure the health of America’s cotton crop); but the law clearly states that money can be spent only if the pink bollworm is deemed to be a boll weevil. That seems a pretty small detail in a document that is 887 pages long. And if you shuffle around online to find out the difference between a pink bollworm and a boll weevil, you may, as I did, come across the fact that farmers in Arizona who have had infestations of either of these varmints are not allowed to plant something called stub, soca, or volunteer cotton. You probably think that “soca” is the Caribbean dance music, but the Internet tells me that “SOCA” is actually a British government outfit called the Serious Organized Crime Agency.
But, really, no detail is too small for our representatives to overlook. As the law clearly states, it is now illegal for military or civilian employees of the Department of Defense to use Government Travel Charge Cards for “gaming or for entertainment that includes topless or nude entertainers or participants.” I’d like to take a bird walk into the bushes to find out what escapades prompted that little clause.
In the authorization for NASA, Congress makes it clear that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope may not exceed $8 billion. The telescope, the successor to the Hubble Telescope, will use neat technology to see farther into space than any human has, and could study the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems. This note in the budget made me wonder, “Who is James Webb?” At first I thought maybe it was the Sen. Jim Webb I saw on TV earlier this fall — the Republican-cum-Democrat who was running for the presidency. No, it turns out that the James Webb of the telescope was actually a businessman-cum-civil servant who was picked by President Kennedy to put a man on the moon. He ran NASA during most of the 1960s and was remarkably successful in not only achieving JFK’s goal but in also building up an agency that decades after his death still draws billions of dollars in federal appropriations.
An interesting footnote to Webb’s story is that he was vice president of the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. The gyroscope is interesting technology that spins and spins and always points to a fixed point in space. Sperry Gyro, which sold gyroscopes to the navies of the U.S., British, French, Italian and Russian navies on the eve of World War I, tested its earliest products on the U.S.S. Delaware, a ship that participated in the coronation of King George V of England.
But I digress.
I found it interesting that the lawmakers found it relevant to forbid use of military construction funds on contracts larger than $1 million and to be built, specifically, in on Kwajalein Atoll. The atoll, part of the Marshall Islands Republic, is in the Pacific near … near nowhere, really, but on the way to Papua New Guinea. It is the largest coral lagoon on the planet and is a staging point for U.S. missile testing. They say that the air is remarkably clean and clear because the primary mode of transportation on this tiny spit of land is the bicycle.
If you hunt around enough, you can find lots of job openings on Kwajalein — from beautician and butcher to surgeon and school age center director. Given my vocation, I checked out the position of “editor” and found out that among the responsibilities are to update movie listings and descriptions on the TV and Entertainment Guide. Hmm, probably not worth relocating halfway around the globe. But, they are looking for a “supervisor Kwajalein Ocean View Club.” Among the responsibilities here are to manager the bartenders and waitstaff and to promote the club in something called the Kwaj Coconut Wire. I start to have visions of me and Isaac, the bartender on the hit ’70s TV show “Love Boat,” hanging out in the air-conditioned comfort of the Ocean View lounge, looking out the plate glass windows at the endless surf crashing against the coral and idly discussing our next big advertising spread in the Kwaj Coconut Wire….
The alarm blares. It’s Monday morning. This bird watcher’s got to get back to work.
Editor’s note: Read this column online at addisonindependent.com and you can follow the links to many of the diversions into which the writer wondered and take your own bird walk.

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