Republicans?are taking the reins of the 108th Congress this month, thanks, in part, to their tough talk about “homeland security” in the weeks leading up to last November’s elections.  What can Americans expect now that the GOP?enjoys majorities in both the House and the Senate and has their man in the White House to sign whatever they send him?  An end to abortion—even “partial-birth” abortion?  Tax cuts across the board?  A balanced budget?

If Republican actions during the month of November are any indication, the answer, lamentably, may be obfuscatory rhetoric and a bigger federal bureaucracy.

The hefty, 435-page H.R. 5005, better known as the Homeland Security Act, chugged through the House of Representatives on November 13, the Senate on the 19th, and was signed by the President on the 25th.  Around 5:17 A.M. on the morning of the 13th, just hours before the scheduled vote in the House, new provisions appeared in the bill’s official record, immunizing some of the Republicans’ biggest contributors—prescription-drug manufacturers—against over 1,000 lawsuits they face for including thimerosal in vaccines.  Thimerosal is alleged to be one of the chief causes of the autism epidemic now plaguing America.

Eli Lilly Corp., a leading pharmaceutical researcher and manufacturer, first developed thimerosal, a mercury-based compound that acts as a preservative, in 1920; up through the 1990’s, it was included in several vaccines.  In 1997, the FDA?began to study the effects of thimerosal and, in 1999, concluded that it hindered neurological development, particularly in infants.  Both the American Pediatrics Association and the FDA encouraged the drug industry to begin producing “thimerosal-free” vaccines as soon as possible.  They have com-plied, though there are still reports of trace amounts of thimerosal in a few vaccines still in use.

Autism, a neurological disorder once considered rare, has gone from an estimated diagnosis of one in 10,000 to one in 500 in the United States overall, and as high as one in 318 in California (reported in 1998) and one in 157 in Britain (according to a recent Sunday Times article by Rosie Waterhouse).  Arthur Allen’s article in the New York Times, “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory” (November 10, 2002), offered the testimony of several leading researchers in support of the theory that autism may be caused or accelerated by mercury poisoning in infants and small children, whose fragile immune systems are subjected to as many as 22 vaccinations (up from eight in 1980) by age two.  The parents of many children suffering from impaired motor skills, speech, and social development have sued Eli Lilly and other drug companies for helping to give their children what, in some cases, amounts to over 60 times the mercury deemed safe for small children, by including thimerosal in their vaccines.

One major section of the Homeland Security Act is entitled “Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Counter-measures.”  In the event of the threat of, say, a smallpox attack, the secretary of homeland security is granted the power to streamline the delivery of vaccinations to whole sections of the country, and, thus far, no exceptions have been granted.  But the 11th-hour rider (Section 304 of Title III of H.R. 5005) adds to this a de facto grant of immunity to Eli Lilly and others for any side effects that their vaccines might produce—or have already produced—by referring all such claims to an investigative board within the home-land-security bureaucracy, bypassing the courts.  The reasoning for giving such a pass to drug manufacturers, according to Sen. (Dr.) Bill Frist (R-TN), is to ensure a “stable manufacturing base for vaccines.”  He dismissed the concerns of parents of autistic children as “not supported by clinical or experimental evidence.”

Curiously, just one day after President  Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson asked a federal court to seal documents relating to claims filed by parents of autistic children who are the alleged victims of thimerosal poisoning.  He claimed that the 1986 bill establishing the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program gives him authority over all information pertaining to victims who have been awarded settlements.

Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Joseph Lieberman sponsored an amendment to H.R. 5005 that would have stricken the language exempting Eli Lilly and other drug manufacturers from responsibility for poisoning children.  The amendment was defeated 52-47, mostly along party lines, though Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) supported it on the grounds that the 11th-hour rider “would leave families of some injured children with no available recourse.”  Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Stowe (both of Maine) backed off from their criticisms of the homeland-security bill when soon-to-be-majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) assured them that Congress would revisit these provisions in 2003: “You have my commitment.”

Eli Lilly bet $1.6 million during the 2002 congressional campaigns that the Republicans would help them to keep cranking out drugs from “a stable base.”  In fact, donations from the pharmaceutical industry totaled $14 million overall in the months leading up to the mid-term elections.  When the time comes for Senator Lott to honor his “commitment,” Republicans can count on advice from Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, who was one of the drafters of the Homeland Security proposal.  Daniels will be able to draw on his years of experience as an executive at Eli Lilly Corp.  Republicans can also consult with Sidney Taurel, a member of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and the current CEO and president of Eli Lilly.

Republicans in Congress will enjoy the fruits of their victory for a season.  Their triumph, however, may not survive the next election if they continue to package their pork in the red, white, and blue of homeland security.