The Cynical Motives of a 'Department of Peace'

Members of Congress still act like they can propose spending on frivolous projects and the taxpayer will foot the bill.

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Rep. Barbara Lee of California addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012.

Last week, Democratic California Rep. Barbara Lee introduced the Peace and Nonviolence Act—a bill to create a cabinet-level department dedicated to these laudable goals. And that's where the Washington fun begins.

The congresswoman's office got to issue high-minded, pious-sounding press releases and declarations about how this initiative is needed to address not only wars and conflict abroad but every sort of violence—criminal, gang, domestic, mass murderers—here at home.

Fox News Channel got to run a morning show segment decrying the expense and waste that would be involved—a cabinet secretary and under secretary, seven assistant secretaries, plus other officials and staff. Its commentators could mock the hopeless idealism of supposing that world and domestic peace, no less, can be brought about by the advising, educating, and policy-kibbitzing activities of a federal department.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Presiden Obama's antiwar constituency can be appeased; conservatives can be appalled. But what's really appalling is the cynicism of all this.

First of all, the idea is not new. It's old. Ultra-liberal Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich has introduced this bill in every Congress since two months before the 9/11 attacks. (He was lucky, in 2001, to get it in under the wire; if he'd waited another eight or 10 weeks to introduce it, he'd have looked like a cross between the biggest squish imaginable and an active protector of Osama bin Laden—at the moment when the entire country was screaming for retaliation.)

Second, the idea is completely redundant. For 30 years, we've had an almost entirely federally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace. It occupies a shiny new building next door to the State Department on the National Mall. Originally dreamed up as a counterweight to the Pentagon's War Colleges and defense think tanks, studying how to make war (instead of peace), it's programs have long since expanded beyond interstate conflict to research, teaching, and training on sources of and antidotes for societal violence— including forays into more effective approaches to policing. Practically everything Representative Lee's new federal department would do, the institute already does. But the proposal isn't to elevate the institute to cabinet rank; it's to build something new on top of it. Just the thing to do in a time of out-of-control deficits and run-away debt.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

And then there's the fact that we already have a "Department of Peace." It's called the State Department. Ask anyone who works there—or ever has. They'll tell you: It's their professional mission to keep the United States at peace and to achieve its aims in the world peacefully.

Finally, of course, there's the recognition by everyone in this little Washington footnote drama that there is virtually zero chance of Ms. Lee's bill becoming law at all—at least for now. It's well-known that only 2 percent or so of bills submitted by our 535 enterprising legislators ever get enacted. (After all, that's how the U.S. Institute of Peace got started—a 1976 Senate bill to create a "Peace Academy" that went nowhere until it became a 1979 Carter-era study and, finally, a law acceded to by President Reagan in the midst of the Soviet's election-year-long boycott of the START nuclear arms talks.) So tossing this little feel-good bone to the antiwar left is costless.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

But is it costless? Our nation remains in crisis: over four years of unemployment hovering between 7.5 and 8 percent; sluggish economic growth; run-away deficits, ballooning national debt; a federal government operating without a formal budget for four years, and near gridlock in Congress and between the executive and legislative branches. At such a time, that Rep. Lee apparently felt no inhibitions about introducing a transparently frivolous, wastefully duplicative piece of legislation during the run-up to last Friday's sequester deadline underscores that attitudes in Washington really haven't changed. Members of Congress still act like they can propose spending on anything from a vanity project back home to a symbolic fillip to a core constituency and the taxpayer will foot the bill.

Lofty goals proffered from the most cynical of motives. Sacred cow projects that nicely provide fodder for the 24-hour news channels' outrage mills—whether of Fox or MSNBC. No wonder the American public is alienated and cynical about Washington. It's hard to find a starting point to address such a profound and wide-spread … dare we say malaise?. But one small step might be for congressional leaders to drive a stake through the heart of Rep. Lee's proposed new federal department.

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