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$388 BILLION BUDGET BILL LACKS SCRUTINY

Pork-barrel projects abound in 3,500 pages of spending that the House OK'd without even reading.

The House recently passed a $388 billion budget bill without reading its 3,500 pages.

Only later did members realize that it included a provision giving more of its members the right to look at your tax returns.

That budget also included $2 billion for a water project that scientists rejected as wasteful.

And $4 million will go to the International Fertilizer Development Center and countless other recipients that critics see as dubious.

The budget bill goes to the president for his signature in December, making this the 13th year out of the last 15 in which Congress missed its Oct. 1 budget deadline.

Add it all up and lawmakers from both parties say the federal budget process is now as much of a mess as the one the New York State Legislature makes every year in Albany.

"It's just as bad here," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, a former state legislator. "We've got no budget here, either, but nobody notices."

One could argue that Albany's track record is slightly worse. It hasn't produced a budget on time in two decades.

But in Washington as well as Albany, budgets tend to be gigantic last-minute patchworks that escape thorough scrutiny.

"This bill clearly reflects that we are not doing our essential job of expending public funds wisely and responsibly," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

This year, for example, some congressional staff member inserted a provision in the bill allowing the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to appoint "agents" who would have access to "Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein."

The spending bill passed the House without anyone noticing the tax-snooping provision. But Senate staff members found it, and senators recoiled in horror.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, said the provision would allow information on tax returns to be used "as a club against political enemies."

Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, also criticized the provision.

"At some point, people's privacy would have been jeopardized," said Conrad, whose staff discovered the provision.

Worse yet, lawmakers are not sure if the provision on tax returns is the bill's only mistake.

"There could be a thousand other things like that in there," said Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning.

Yet Houghton, like Slaughter and the vast majority of House members, voted for the bill, which was portrayed -- as most year-end budget bills are -- as a must-pass item.

Almost all of the pork-barrel projects that individual members of Congress could get this year were included in the bill, making it difficult to vote against, said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert who heads the Washington office of Financial Dynamics Business Communications.

"This is the best way for members of Congress to do what they want to do, which is to hide decisions that would otherwise be difficult to make on their own," Collender said.

The bill includes projects that might be subject to ridicule in the full light of day.

McCain noted that those funding items include $2 billion for the expansion of locks on the upper Mississippi River, a project that the National Academies of Science declared a waste of money. McCain also criticized the bill for including a federal fertilizer project, along with $1 million for the Norwegian American Foundation and another $1 million for a Wild American Shrimp Initiative. "Are American shrimp unruly and lacking initiative? Why does the U.S. taxpayer need to fund this 'no shrimp left behind' act?" McCain asked.

The budget process is not supposed to work this way. Under reforms passed in the 1970s, Congress is supposed to pass 13 separate bills funding different parts of the federal government. Individual bills funding departments and agencies such as defense, labor, education, housing and environment are supposed to be vetted by committees on both sides of Capitol Hill and then passed before Oct. 1.

But in six of the last seven years, Congress has failed to reach agreement on most of those spending bills. This means that many have been rolled up into one last-minute, must-pass "omnibus" budget bill that does not get nearly the scrutiny that individual spending bills receive when they go through the normal committee process.

This year's omnibus bill combined nine of the 13 budget bills and funded almost the entire federal government except for defense, homeland security and entitlement programs. House and Senate negotiators completed it the morning of Nov. 20, and the House voted on it about six hours later. For some reason, Congress' annual budget routine has not met nearly as much criticism as the State Legislature's budget process in New York.

The public should be concerned about how Congress decides to spend taxpayer money, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a Washington budget watchdog.

"The most important thing is the lack of scrutiny," Bixby said. "You can see that in some of the bizarre things that ended up in this bill. These are massive bills that nobody can possibly read before voting on them. That opens up the possibility for legislative mischief."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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