Spending bill freighted with last-minute changes Passage is expected, but some are beginning to turn against package

October 20, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- From meat-packing to Mickey Mouse, the $500 billion spending package set for congressional passage this evening is loaded with provisions that were slipped into the legislation in the final hours of negotiations.

Lawmakers eager to recess for their late-breaking election campaigns are expected to easily pass the final bill of the 105th Congress. But it has become so freighted with last-minute spending and policy changes that budget hawks and conservatives outside of Congress are beginning to turn angrily against the package.

"We're just very disheartened to see the greed that surfaced just a couple of weeks before the election," said Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which advocates balanced federal budgets. "And that's really what this is all about -- elections."

The bill -- which will fill in nearly one-third of the federal government's $1.7 trillion budget -- may eat up more than $21 billion of the expected $71 billion budget surplus of 1998. The section of the bill labeled as "emergency" spending does not have to be offset by spending cuts in other parts of the budget, and lawmakers took advantage of those budget rules to load up the measure with items that have little to do with emergencies. That section's price tag grew over the weekend by about $1 billion, to nearly $21 billion.

Because Republican leaders negotiated the package directly with White House officials, the legislation fell outside Congress' normal procedures for shaping federal spending, allowing for more secretive dealing than usual.

The pressure of a looming election contributed further to the horse-trading. The final bill and its accompanying report are expected to fill 2,500 pages, far thicker than the Baltimore phone book. Nobody really knows everything in it, Republican and Democratic aides concede.

"The whole process degenerated into a low-rent spoils system," said Ronald Utt, chief budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Even before watchdog groups or budget hawks in Congress have analyzed the package, word of contentious provisions has dribbled out. And there has been plenty of grumbling.

Mohair subsidies are back

Long derided until they were phased out in 1995, mohair subsidies are back in the federal budget, to the tune of $27 million. So is at least $50 million to cover the cost of Viagra for military retirees.

About $3 million will go to support the price of dairy products, even though milk prices are near record highs, said Aaron Taylor of the conservative Citizens Against Government Waste.

Last year, Congress enacted legislation mandating an end in 1998 to federal subsidies for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Depression-era government-owned utility in the Southeast. But the spending package contains not only $50 million to subsidize TVA's nonpower-related functions, but also a multimillion-dollar refinancing plan to help the utility lower interest rates on its $3.2 billion debt.

"They have circumvented the whole process," an aide to Rep. Mike Parker, a Mississippi Republican who favors lower spending, said of the back-room negotiators. "We had language in a bill last year ending all this, and all of sudden, that bill is closed, sent to the president and signed, and we get this $50 million addition."

Said Utt: "You get the sense on a lot of important issues, [the Republicans] simply gave up in terms of holding the line on spending."

Policy provisions include a 20-year extension of Walt Disney Co.'s expiring Mickey Mouse copyright and protection for an Idaho semiconductor firm from Korean competition.

And at a time when Republicans are attacking the White House for easing restrictions on sensitive exports to China, Boeing Co. won language to help it skirt new export restrictions and to supply China with parts for 747 jumbo jets, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Negotiators also dropped several policy changes that had been opposed by business interests. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, for example, had tried to transfer the oversight of truck safety from the Federal Highway Administration to the more stringent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the American Trucking Association objected loudly. The association has given more than $191,000 to Republican candidates this election season.

House and Senate GOP leaders had requested that the truck safety measure be dropped, according to a House Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Provision watered down

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