The Lott plot

Now we know what Trent Lott has been doing with his spare time since he was deposed as U.S. Senate majority leader.

In July, the man who pined for Strom Thurmond's segregationist South did the bidding of more northerly chum: our own Northwest Airlines. With no Congressional hearings, Lott slipped a provision in a House-Senate compromise bill (that both bodies must vote on unchanged) to cripple a local plan to insulate homes against airport noise. The local effort would lower the insulation threshold from 65 decibels to 60, benefiting many homes in Southwest Minneapolis.

Forget for the moment that the whole noise insulation concept is like a death-and-dismemberment policy: you get $500, but you have to lose an eye. Few of us would trade open windows on nice summer days for enough quiet to think.

But whatever you think of 60-db sound insulation, it was a deal, negotiated in public, as compensation for keeping the airport close to the central city. Northwest, spared the cost of a new airport, was the prime beneficiary then; in return, a few thousand people living underneath perpetual flight paths got more stuffing in their homes.

Bottom line: Northwest snuck through Washington's back door to scuttle a deal from which it had already benefited.

That is, in a word, shameful. But for shamelessness, it was hard to top Northwest's explanation once the Lott plot was exposed: "Rather than noise abatement that goes beyond FAA-approved standards, these funds should be used for the most pressing priorities, including the safety and security of millions of passengers who use the airport each year."

That's right; they played the 9/11 card -- a purpose so noble it couldn't tolerate public hearings.

(Earlier, Northwest announced direct flights to Lott's home state of Mississippi -- no doubt a coveted destination for a cash-strapped airline.)

Through all this muck, one politician spoke clearly: U.S. Senator Mark Dayton.

On the Senate floor, Dayton ripped Lott for a deal so secret that Minnesota's Congressional delegation didn't know it was coming. He called it "a perversion of our public process for making laws which govern the lives of the citizens of this country; in this case, the lives of people who live in over 8,000 homes and over 3,200 apartments which surround the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airport.

"The several thousand people who would be affected by this clause … were not a party to that decision because the people they elected to represent them in Congress, their two Senators and their Congressman, were not a party to this clause."

And Dayton did not spare the hometown employer. "Northwest Airlines more often acts like Darth Vader than the Caped Crusader," he said.

Thus outraged, Dayton publicly threatened to place a "hold" on all White House nominations until the Northwest's provision was withdrawn from the Congressional bill.

Cause federal gridlock for a few noisy Twin Cities homes? It could easily rate as overkill if Dayton can't pull it off. An uncomfortable public man, his outrage seems pent up until it bursts like steam from a pressure cooker, sometimes making him appear shrill or not in control.

But in these days when political fog and doubletalk drown out principled action, Dayton's bluntness is exactly what was needed, and his clear action is what we should expect from our leaders. We need to acknowledge that in the light of day: thank you, Senator.

David Brauer edits the Southwest Journal. He will not benefit from the sound insulation program.