Army Corps chief quits amid flap over agency's budget

Mike Parker was asked to resign Wednesday from his job as assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works and head of the Army Corps of Engineers, just a week after he implied to the Senate Budget Committee that the Office of Management and Budget might have purposely low-balled the Army Corps' fiscal 2003 budget request.

Parker told the panel that when he was a member of Congress from representing Mississippi from 1989-98, "I always looked at OMB and never had those warm and fuzzy feelings. Now that I've been in the administration, I still don't have those warm and fuzzy feelings."

In a separate interview with National Journal, Parker also split with the administration's position on earmarked projects. "Congress has a legitimate right to make decisions about what's best for their states and districts," he said.

OMB has called on Congress to stop earmarking. But an OMB official said OMB Director Mitch Daniels had no role in Parker's ouster. "Mitch has not been occupied with personnel outside OMB," the official said.

House Republican appropriators blasted the Bush administration for forcing the resignation of Parker. "What a national tragedy that petty politics in the Pentagon and in the lower levels of the White House could cause such character assassination," House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., told CongressDaily. "I'm devastated by this decision."

While members of Congress said Parker was fired, the Defense Department said in a brief statement that Parker resigned. "The department appreciates Mr. Parker's contributions and wishes him the best in his future endeavors," the statement said.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who described himself as a friend of Parker's, said the administration "felt that Mike's comments at this point in the process were inappropriate." Lott added, however, that Parker "told the truth that the Corps of Engineers budget, as proposed, is insufficient."

Callahan agreed that Parker was being punished for telling the truth.

"Up until this year, everyone came to our committee and saluted and said the Army Corps was not important," Callahan said. He contended that Parker "did not say anything that anyone in the Corps of Engineers wouldn't say privately."

But Callahan said although the Bush administration claims to oppose earmarking, "they earmarked their own projects" in their budget. And he said Parker had widespread support among members of Congress, although some Pentagon officials had opposed his selection.

A colleague of Parker's when he was in the House said he could have helped the administration push its priorities. "I think Mike Parker was in a unique position to bridge a gap between the OMB bean counters and the elected representatives of the people," said Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., an Appropriations Committee member.

Parker's ouster is likely to aggravate already strained relations between House appropriators and OMB.

Indeed, House Appropriations Staff Director James Dyer told CongressDaily: "Mike Parker is a damn good guy. The fact that he understands how the Congress works should not be held against him."

There was negative reaction to the move in the Senate as well.

Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said that when Parker testified before the Budget Committee: "He answered questions honestly, which people are expected to do, and for that he gets fired. That is a black mark not on him, but on the administration."

Conrad said the firing has a "chilling effect" on other officials who testify. "What are we to expect now from future witnesses?"

Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., said he had already spoken to the White House about Parker's resignation. "This is going to provide impetus for Congress to do what we were going to have to do already, which is to increase the budget for the Corps over what was recommended," Bond said.

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