For 772 of its thick 776 pages, the new Defense Authorization Act that passed Congress last month routinely outlines how many bombers, missiles and other munitions the nation may buy.
But quietly tucked in the middle, on pages 364 to 367, are provisions changing another law - enacted just one week earlier by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - and how it compensates Intermountain victims of atomic bomb testing.The most major change mandates that Nevada Test Site workers who contracted cancer be added to groups eligible for payment under the Hatch-Owens Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which was changed almost before its ink dried.
Those changes managed to peeve many of the people they are supposed to help, raise questions about whether Utah downwinders were short-changed and provide an amazing tale of how back-room politics can make major changes with little or no public input.
For example, some Nevada Test Site victims are upset because they did not ask or want to be included in the Hatch-Owens bill. They had asked for repeal of other legislation that had made their lawsuits difficult. But the compromise ended up solidifying that problematic legislation more than ever.
Also, some Utah victims of downwind fallout feel they have been cheated because test-site workers are eligible for 50 percent more money - $75,000 instead of downwinders' $50,000 - even though downwinders pushed long and hard for the Hatch-Owens bill.
Also, the changes zapped the $100 million limit for payments established by the Hatch-Owens bill, meaning the overall amount the government may spend on compensation is unlimited.
A Senate Judiciary Committee staffer joked, "It took the defense people to do that. We couldn't." Hatch said that should help ensure all worthy victims receive payments, but downwinders worry that may hurt efforts to actually appropriate compensation money - which so far is merely promised.
The changes also altered the wording of the federal apology to cancer victims in the Hatch-Owens act by eliminating references that described victims as "innocent" or "unwitting participants" because of the addition of the Nevada Test Site workers.
All that came in a last-minute avalanche of legislation last month as Congress raced to adjourn and campaign before the Nov. 6 election. The changes were generally lost in the shuffle and are only now coming to light.
Janet Gordon, leader of the downwinder group Citizens Call, complained, "It caught everybody by surprise. We and the test-site people didn't find out about it until it was already a done deal. It was done without our input. We couldn't change it."
Interviews with congressional staffers involved said the changes were pushed by members of Congress from Nevada to help test-site victims, and by other members of House and Senate armed services committees who wanted to finally resolve their claims.
Congressional offices say their efforts were meant to help cancer victims, although some test-site and downwinder groups charge they may have been designed more to help government and its contractors avoid losing expensive decisions in court.
Nevada Test Site cancer victims had for 10 years pursued suits against the government and its contractors at the test site.
Because the government had agreed to indemnify contractors against suits, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., pushed through an amendment in 1984 saying employees of test-site contractors were to be considered federal employees. And suits against the contractors were to be considered suits against the government.
That meant courts would likely rule - as they did against Utah downwinders - that the government was immune from such suits because it was acting within its discretionary functions for national defense.
But a court in Nevada ruled last year that violations at the test site were so severe that such immunity did not apply - giving hope of big settlements for victims.
Still, Las Vegas attorney Larry Johns - who represents 220 test-site victims - said they asked Congress to repeal the Warner amendment so they could directly sue the prime test-site contractor, Reynolds Electric and Engineering Co.
He said Nevada laws would then put the burden of proof on the contractor to show atomic tests did not cause cancer, which would have made test-site victims' suits much easier to win.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., persuaded the Senate to repeal the Warner amendment in its version of the Defense Authorization Act. But the House refused. So a House-Senate conference to work out differences in the bill sought a compromise.
Mike Talisnik, an aide to a member of that conference, Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev., said, "We wanted the repeal of the Warner amendment, but that wasn't feasible in the conference. So we looked for compensation."
Staffers said the defense bill conferees decided the best way to reach a quick compromise was to use the same definitions and mechanisms included in the just-passed Hatch-Owens bill.
Their compromise was reportedly worked out among such conference members as Bilbray; Reid; Warner; Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C.; Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; and Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn. Also, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversaw the Hatch-Owens bill, was closely consulted.
The staffs of Owens and Hatch were also advised of changes under consideration and did not object as long as it did not change the hard-fought compensation won for other groups. But Hatch adds, "While I knew they were considering it, I didn't know they had actually done it when they did."
Representatives of both test-site victims and downwinders say they were not consulted until the deal was done but not yet officially passed. Gordon complained, "We were told it was a done deal, and nothing could be changed. There seemed to be nobody to talk to who would acknowledge what was going on."
Spratt offered the final compromise in the House-Senate conference. His spokesman, Chuck Sant, said Spratt felt test-site workers "have a compelling case, and the government has a moral obligation to these people. He also believes the administrative process (instead of legal suits) is best."
The changes were adopted Oct. 23 - just a week after President Bush signed the Hatch-Owens bill on Oct. 15.
But among the changes, the conference decided to repeal the Warner amendment, only to immediately re-enact it under the new name of the Atomic Testing Liability Act, that will appear in the U.S. Code next to the modified Hatch-Owens act.
Gordon suggested that shows the government was more concerned about losing lawsuits than about the welfare of victims, and was a cheap way to end claims.
Johns agreed to a point. "Obviously it was a bailout in the sense that contractors - by Warner not being repealed - will never have to defend themselves in court. Remember, it was the contractors who had the Warner amendment slipped in without anybody's knowledge back in 1984."
Still, he said test-site victims are happy that one branch of government has finally apologized for their plight and made a settlement easy. He said each victim will decide whether to accept the proposed $75,000 payment or proceed with lawsuits.
"Some would probably receive much more than $75,000. They have medical bills in excess of $200,000," he said. But their suits could take years to settle.
Sant said the bill will allow military and civilian workers from the Nevada Test Site to file for $75,000 worth of compensation by merely showing they worked at the site and having one of 17 forms of cancer outlined in the Hatch-Owens bill.
Owens said he was somewhat disappointed that the Nevada Test Site workers will receive more than Utah downwinders, who are eligible for only $50,000.
"But we had more trouble showing that the testing directly caused their cancer," he said. He and Hatch noted that uranium miners who contracted cancer were also eligible for more money under their bill - $100,000 - because they had a stronger case to prove the government caused their illnesses.
Rick Guldan, press secretary to Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who was a member of the defense authorization conference that worked out the changes, said Hansen was somewhat disappointed at the figures. "But we live in a world of compromise. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little."
Gordon was more sharp with her criticism. "There is a good deal of pain and resentment associated with the fact that test-site workers' lives are worth $75,000 while downwinders' lives are only worth $50,000.
"It is not fair. Test-site workers at least had medical care while they were working and were paid for their work. Downwinders had no recompense, no help."
She said downwinders plan to lobby to make all victims of atomic bomb testing and development eligible for the same $100,000 that uranium miners may now receive.
She said her group also wants clarifying language to clear up many vague definitions in the bill, which she complains were made more vague by changes in the Defense Authorization Act.
Others are also talking of more changes. Owens, for example, wants to amend the law to compensate ranchers who lost sheep to atomic testing, and not to subtract from compensation payments the amounts victims have received from other settlements. He also wants extra money to help them pay attorney's fees - much of which would go to some of his old law partners.
Others have also suggested amending the act to prohibit lawyers from filing applications and charging victims for services.