WASHINGTON - As one of Congress' top experts on spending issues, Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks keeps an eye on the public purse, and he says that Burmese pythons just cost taxpayers way too much money.
As the snakes multiply and spread, Dicks says, the federal government must spend millions of dollars each year to try to control them. Moreover, he says, the giant, fast-growing snakes jeopardize public safety and threaten the government's huge investment in restoring Florida's Everglades.
Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has had enough: He says it's time to make sure that no more of the snakes, which can exceed lengths of 20 feet, are allowed to enter the United States or move across state lines.
To that end, Dicks wants President Obama's administration to act quickly to finalize a proposed rule that would stop all imports and interstate transport of Burmese pythons and eight other types of constrictors.
Zoos would not be affected. Under the proposed rule, which has won the backing of the Humane Society of the United States, exemptions could be granted for "scientific, medical, educational or zoological purposes."
While many of the snakes are popular as pets, Dicks said the pythons are "causing damage and devastation" and must be banned.
"They're killing a lot of other species, and they're dangerous," Dicks said in an interview.
Snake traders say that a ban would put them out of business. The proposed rule - which also is opposed by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers - has bogged down as some Republicans, including Rep. Darrell Issa of California, have sympathized with the snake importers, citing the proposed rule as another example of job-killing policies promoted by the Obama administration.
The snakes, estimated in the tens of thousands in Florida, have long been a source of trouble, eating alligators, porcupines and other animals. In 2009, a pet python strangled a 2-year-old girl in the state. And in October, workers captured a 16-foot python that had gobbled up a 76-pound deer.
While some Florida lawmakers have worked for years to try to get the snakes banned, key congressional appropriators now are promoting the cause.
Teaming up with Republican Rep. Bill Young of Florida, another senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Dicks wrote a letter to the president shortly before Congress' holiday break, saying the federal government "simply cannot afford additional spending in the billions to control invasive species."
They said the government already has spent billions on restoring the Everglades and complained that the snakes have now become the dominant predator and threaten the region's sensitive ecosystem.
Noting the "enormous reproductive potential" of the snakes, the congressmen said, "This problem will continue to cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually" if it's not addressed.
One study by the federal government found that if global temperatures continue to rise, pythons would be established in roughly one-third of the country by 2100.