Goody-bag government

February 17, 2003

PERHAPS THE MAIN reason why Congress finally approved last week a budget for the fiscal year nearly half over is that Sen. Ted Stevens, the irascible Republican from Alaska, warned it was now or never.

He threatened that unless a deal was reached before the Presidents Day recess, federal spending would stay frozen at last year's level until a budget for next year is approved, no earlier than next fall. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he could make the threat stick.

It's too bad his ploy worked.

The bloated conglomeration of pork barrel projects and special-interest riders that Congress produced almost entirely in backroom negotiations is in many respects worse than doing nothing at all.

Thanks largely to Senator Stevens, the bill became an opportunity to win quickie approval of some bad environmental policy.

National forests have been opened more widely to commercial logging, while the options for citizens seeking to challenge logging contracts have been reduced. Judicial and administrative reviews of a much-disputed management plan for the Tongass National Forest in Mr. Stevens' home state were almost completely removed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Stevens turned to conservation programs for the extra funds he needed to strike a final bargain on drought aid for farmers.

Bad policy is the inevitable result, however, of a process that excluded debate and consideration of 90 percent of the nearly $400 billion package, funding almost every federal agency but the Pentagon.

Most of the measure never went through the committee review process in either house. Details were negotiated in secret by a handful of lawmakers, most of whom never saw the bill until they were asked to vote on it. Up or down, without amendment.

"What are you going to do? There are hundreds of worthwhile programs in there," said Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who opposed the environmental riders.

A substantial majority of lawmakers in both parties voted for the bill after it had been larded with pet provisions to grease the skids.

A few of these were laudable, especially a move to shut down Pentagon research on a program that would compile personal data on anyone using the Internet - including financial and medical information.

The spending bill also includes $1.5 billion to help states modernize their election systems, finally fulfilling a promise made in the wake of the 2000 election debacle.

Yet there are thousands of other less-defensible riders in the 13-inch thick documents. Such as a provision to allow a Georgia poultry farmer to advertise his birds as organic even if they don't feed on organic grain. Or the nearly $1.2 million in subsidies for the baseball, cowgirl and rock 'n' roll halls of fame.

One reason the bill took so long to produce is that President Bush demanded lawmakers hold a firm line on domestic social spending. He figured the task would be much easier once Republicans regained full control of Congress last November.

But with all the payoffs, Mr. Bush was forced to accept $12.5 billion more than his top offer last fall.

What he got was no bargain. The federal budget process is long overdue for reform.

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