How Our Money Waltzes Away

James J. Kilpatrick

October 31, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

WASHINGTON — Washington.

THIS HAS BEEN the most disgraceful session of Congress in my memory, and my memory goes back a long way. It will be weeks before the country discovers exactly what has been perpetrated on the people these past few days.

In the mad rush to adjournment, members were voting on bills they knew little or nothing about. They were voting on amendments that had not been printed. Through the device of ''unanimous consent,'' they hustled surreptitious deals to enactment faster than clerks could record them.

Any effort to analyze the deficit-reduction act is an exercise in futility. During the wheeling and dealing, members wrote one little favor after another into the bill. Eventually a few experts on the Tax Code will fit the pieces together, but this will take time.

The act purports to reduce the 1991 deficit by $40 billion. It supposedly will lower the deficit over the next five years by something approaching $500 billion. Yes, sir. And the moon is made of blue cheese. No Congress can bind a future Congress. Early in 1991 you may confidently expect a supplementary appropriations bill to relieve the pain of these phony deficit ''reductions.'' Congress doesn't know how to spend less in 1991 than it has spent in 1990. Families know how. Businesses know how. The collective clowns of Capitol Hill never have learned such discipline.

One small item in the trillion-dollar budget will tell you how the congressional process works. In the small town of Strasburg, N.D., Sharon Eiseman several years ago had a great idea. She would raise money to restore the boyhood home of the band leader Lawrence Welk and would build a museum to the pioneers at the site.

The fund raising went slowly. Then someone suggested that maybe federal funds could be tapped. Ms. Eiseman wrote North Dakota's Sen. Quentin Burdick. Mr. Burdick turned the matter over to his press secretary, Jean D. Brodshaug. She got in touch with Rocky L. Kuhn, clerk of the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The subcommittee is chaired by -- who else? -- Senator Burdick. Wheels turned.

Under the heading of a rural-development grant, Mr. Kuhn proceeded to write the sum of $500,000 into the agriculture appropriations bill. No hearings on the Welk boyhood home ever were held. No witness testified in the project's behalf. The printed record contains not one word of documentation, explaining how the $500,000 would be spent. Mr. Kuhn simply pulled a half-million dollars out of thin air. Senator Burdick is such a benevolent man.

That did it. At a time when the government is running more than $200 billion a year in the red -- at a time when every tax dollar should be squeezed -- a committee clerk takes his pen and writes a needless $500,000 into an appropriations act. A one, a two, a three, and our money waltzes away.

Mr. Burdick's imperial attitude pervades the legislative process. The senator is 82; he has served without significant distinction since he replaced Bill Langer 30 years ago. He looks like Jiggs of Jiggs & Maggie, but there is nothing comic about the power he wields. The $500,000 for Mr. Welk's boyhood home was just one item in $17.6 million that Senator Burdick wrote into the bill for North Dakota.

What does this Congress have to show for itself? Mighty little. A clean-air bill and a bill to aid handicapped Americans are good bills, but they will impose heavy costs on an already weak economy. There is something to be said for the immigration bill that passed Saturday. Otherwise the list of constructive accomplishments is pathetic.

The House has raised the salary of its members to $120,800 in January, with a further raise to $124,000 in October. Senators will get $101,000 in 1991 plus another $23,600 in potential lecture fees. As the weary members ride into a lucrative sunset, let us bid them farewell. Until noon on January 3, when they return, the liberties of the people are secure.

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