WASHINGTON – House Transportation Committee lawmakers on Thursday assailed the firing of former Rep. Mike Parker, the latest victim in the environmental and budget wars within the Bush administration.
Parker was fired Wednesday as an assistant secretary of the Army after criticizing the administration's budget proposal to cut spending on Army Corps of Engineers' water projects. Environmentalists celebrated but the move was not popular with lawmakers who look upon Corps projects as big job producers in their home states.
"In 226 years of the Corps of Engineers this may be one of its darkest hours," said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the Transportation Committee. He spoke at a hearing on the impact of proposed budget cuts on the nation's inland waterway users, coastal communities and flood control programs.
Parker was forced to resign after telling both House and Senate panels last week that the proposed cuts could have a negative impact on the Corps' mission and he expected Congress to restore some of the money.
"He ought to be getting awards for telling the truth," said Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor, a fellow Mississippian. "He ought to be put in charge of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) for that kind of honesty."
Democrats were the most critical of the action, but Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the water resources and environment subcommittee, said he was "disappointed" that Parker's "honestly expressed concerns made it necessary for him to resign."
"This reminds me of the Pentagon plan to establish an office of disinformation. That scheme had to be dropped due to the outcry that such policies are fundamentally at odds with our system and our values," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Just a week earlier, Eric Schaeffer resigned as director of civil enforcement for the Environment Protection Agency, accusing the administration of stifling efforts to reduce air pollution from old refineries, coal-burning power plants and industrial boilers.
Both departures reflect continuing turmoil within an administration on how to deal with environmental issues.
Environmental groups who have been among the most fervent critics of Bush said they were glad to see Parker go.
"There are clearly strong advocates within the Bush administration for reforming the Army Corps, and Mike Parker was not one of them," said Environmental Defense senior attorney Tim Searchinger.
Industry groups who have sided with the administration on environmental issues, however, criticized Parker's departure.
"That's nothing new for people in his position -- being in hot water," said Harry N. Cook, president of the National Waterways Conference in Washington. "The civil works budget has not for many years enjoyed high priority within the administration."
The Pentagon issued a brief statement saying Parker had resigned, but lawmakers in both parties and lobbyists said it was only after he was given an ultimatum earlier Wednesday to resign or be fired.
"The department appreciates Mr. Parker's contributions and wishes him the best in his future endeavors," the Pentagon said in a statement that made no mention of the reason for Parker's departure.
Parker, 52, the civilian administrator for civil projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, is the first visible high-level political appointee in the Bush administration to be dismissed. A five-term congressman, he switched from the Democratic to Republican Party in 1995 and lost a tight race for governor of Mississippi in 1999.
In his budget submission last month, President Bush proposed cutting the Corps of Engineers' budget by 10 percent to $4.175 billion, excluding federal retirees' pensions and benefits. The Corps had requested more than $6 billion.
At a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee last week, Parker said the cuts would require the Corps to cancel $190 million in already contracted projects providing 4,500 jobs.
"After being in the administration and dealing with them, I still don't have warm and fuzzy feelings for them," he testified before the committee. "I'm hoping that OMB (the White House Office of Management and Budget) understands we're at the beginning of the process. If the Corps is limited in what it does for the American people, there will be a negative impact."
Over the past two years, Corps officials were questioned at several congressional hearings on accusations the agency rigged cost-benefit analyses to justify expanding locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers sought by powerful agribusiness interests.