WASHINGTON -- When Congress passed the 1991 military spending bill last week, it imposed little-noticed but significant new restrictions on the president's power to spend billions of dollars on classified programs.
While public attention focused on spending for "Star Wars" and the B-2 bomber, legislators and administration officials were struggling over a section of the bill that requires the administration to use money earmarked for secret programs precisely as Congress prescribes.
At stake is control over a "black budget" of more than $35 billion hidden in the military spending bill for numerous secret weapons programs and intelligence activities.
To provide money for such programs while keeping the amounts secret, Congress every year buries the funds in the military budget.
In the past, Congress has attached classified reports to military appropriations saying how this secret money should be spent. But the administration has treated the instructions in these classified "annexes" as mere expressions of congressional wishes rather than actual law.
Lawmakers say there were several major disputes this year over the administration's refusal to comply with secret directives from congressional committees on appropriations, armed services and intelligence.
Last week, just before it adjourned, Congress adopted restrictions on use of federal money for clandestine military and intelligence programs, and it said the restrictions "shall have the force and effect of law."
When the bill is signed by President Bush, the restrictions will be legally binding on federal employees, and Congress can monitor compliance through committees that oversee the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
The Pentagon is not happy with this new arrangement. In a letter on Oct. 18, Terrence O'Donnell, general counsel of the Defense Department, complained that Congress was enacting "secret law without debate, comment and consultation."