Spending package gives billions for pet projects

Bush expected to sign $397 billion measure passed by House, Senate

February 14, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Congress sent President Bush a $397 billion spending measure last night that lawmakers loaded with special projects, even after they wrangled with the White House to stay within tight spending constraints.

In a time of lean budgets, looming deficits and, quite possibly, a costly war in Iraq, the House overwhelmingly approved the massive government-wide spending measure for 2003. The vote was 338-83.

The Senate also approved the measure last night, 76-20, and the White House has indicated Bush will sign it in short order.

While estimates of the total spent on pet projects were not immediately available, a review of portions of the 3,000-plus- page package suggested the amount would run into the billions.

Critics noted that a struggling national economy and the prospect of soaring federal debt did not diminish members' appetite for steering government money to their states and districts.

"The omnibus bill is going whole-hog," said Tom Schatz, president of the budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

It "will certainly set a record for the most pork in a single bill," he said.

The measure contains money for many pressing national needs embraced by both parties, including $10 billion for the war on terrorism, $1.5 billion to help states begin overhauling their voting systems to comply with a new election law, $3.1 billion for drought-stricken farms and billions for Medicare payments to doctors.

But the sweep of the legislation also created a mountain of "pork" projects and budget gimmicks that lawmakers said dwarfed any comparable measure in recent memory.

"This is the biggest backroom deal, in terms of spending, in the nation's history," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The measure includes 885 local grants for economic development initiatives, including about $16.8 million for the state of West Virginia, home to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, a senior appropriator, helped secure millions for Maryland in the package, including $177 million for the construction of a new census facility at Suitland Federal Center, $60 million for a three-mile extension in Prince George's County of Metro's Blue Line, and about $38 million for construction at the Food and Drug Administration's White Oak campus.

Mikulski, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that funds NASA, steered $110 million to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for work on the space agency's Pluto mission.

The measure also includes tens of millions for Maryland dredging projects, including $20.7 million for work on the Baltimore Harbor and $9.2 million for improving anchorages and channels in the Port of Baltimore.

It provides $18 million to double-track heavily traveled parts of the Baltimore Central Light Rail System.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House Democratic whip, fought to include several projects, including $8.8 million for the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

Appropriations Committee members answered the accusations of inappropriate spending by arguing that lawmakers are sent to Congress to fulfill their constituents' needs.

"No one knows the needs of our districts better than the members of this House who were elected by those districts," said Rep. Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who is a senior appropriations member.

Beyond their attacks on parochial projects, many lawmakers - particularly Democrats - assailed policy provisions in the measure that they said were slipped in without appropriate debate or separate votes, as often occurs with catchall spending bills.

The measure would substantially expand a pilot program that allows the logging industry to cut trees on 192 million acres of national forests, opening 364 million more acres of forest to timber companies and extending the program for 10 years.

Congress managed to stay within the spending constraints dictated by the White House, but lawmakers did so partly by using budgetary sleight-of-hand.

The $3.1 billion in drought aid would be paid for by taking money out of conservation programs included in the 2002 farm law. The measure also includes $2.2 billion in "advance" appropriations for education - money that would be spent this year but would not count in this year's budget.

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