If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, must indeed be flattered by the House and Senate armed forces committees.
As reported last week, the committees decided that a new Hatch-Owens law that compensates downwind victims of atomic-bomb testing would also be the best way to compensate cancer victims who worked at the Nevada Test Site.But instead of writing a new law, they quietly buried within the massive Defense Appropriations Act some changes to the just-passed Hatch-Owens law. So now, it also compensates test-site victims - and gives them 50 percent more money than Utah downwinders.
That peeves Utah downwinders. Those innocent and unwitting victims of atomic testing pushed for the Hatch-Owens act for years, then saw another group suffering from the same tests but who worked for the government given more money quietly.
It also peeved many of the Nevada Test-Site victims who, it turns out, had not asked for such help and wanted other action that was ignored.
It also left other lawmakers wondering why they were not better informed about the change in the Hatch-Owens act just one week after it was signed, almost before its ink could dry.
All that trouble comes because the armed forces committees did not imitate the process that led to the Hatch and Owens bill.
Hatch and Owens used openness. They held public hearings. They consulted with all affected groups and critics until they all could live with resulting compromises.
The armed forces committee did the opposite. It acted quietly. Most affected groups were not told of plans until they were final. Even Hatch didn't realize until weeks after Congress had adjourned that those committees had actually amended his new law, although he knew they were considering it earlier.
The armed services committees' action grew out of a request by Nevada Test-Site victims for Congress to repeal a four-year-old provision prohibiting them from suing contractors that operated the test site.
If such suits were allowed, Nevada law would force the contractors to prove nuclear tests did not cause cancer - rather than putting the burden of proof on victims. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., convinced the Senate to repeal that through the Defense Authorization Act. But the House would not go along. So a conference to work out differences in the bill sought compromises.
Aides to those involved said the Hatch-Owens act had just passed, and negotiators figured it was a good way to also compensate Nevada Test-Site victims and end their claims. Reid and others went along when they figured they could do no better.
Aides and others said they also figured that if test-site victims accept the $75,000 each (compared to the $50,000 that other intermountain downwinder victims get) instead of pursuing other suits, it will save the government significant money.
In fact, Las Vegas Attorney Larry Johns, who represents 220 test-site victims, said the action may have been designed more to protect government contractors from defending themselves in court than to help test-site victims.
But the changes will likely have unforeseen but positive consequences for downwinders.
For example, Hatch battled with the Bush administration to the final second about whether the bill was a good solution to downwinder claims against the government.
But flattering Hatch now by imitating it and using it to find an inexpensive way to handle potentially large claims by other groups should only help convince the administration to quickly develop rules to implement it.
It should also help get actual funding for the bill, which so far has only been promised.
Also, the changes eliminated a $100-million cap on funding. So, Hatch and Owens should be able through the years to push for whatever amount of money is needed to ensure funding sufficient to cover claims of all those worthy, not just whoever files earliest.