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Deficit-wary Congress cuts back on pork barrel projects

For reformers, the good news is that the national budget crunch has come down on waterway, dam, and highway projects that the powerful in Congress once divvied up among their home districts.

The bad news is that the military budget is growing so fast that Congress is merely looking into a different barrel - one filled with military construction and weapons funding - for pork.

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The good news is that Congress is taking a hard look at billion-dollar projects that have questionable value. In votes late last year, the House voted to cancel two of the most controversial, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee and the Garrison Diversion irrigation project in North Dakota.

The bad news, at least for their opponents, is that both projects won reinstatement in a conference with the Senate.

Ever since the first elected official discovered he could pass a measure to pave a road or open a post office back home, politicians have made it a major aim to deliver something tangible to their voters. If those gifts are wasteful or if they are pushed through by a lawmaker's personal power, they fit the usual definition of ''pork.''

But what is pork to one observer is reelection insurance to many a congressman. And the old habit of delivering programs and grants to their districts and home states is hard to break, even in an era of austerity.

''I think generally that pork barrel projects have not slowed down at all,'' says Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) of Massachusetts, who led the fight against the Garrison Diversion plan last December, only to see the $1.1 billion project restored in a House-Senate conference.''They wait until the last minute of the conference when everybody wants to go home and it's close to midnight and, bingo , (the projects are) all back in there again.''

Despite Conte's pessimism, there are signs that pork is no longer being passed out on Capitol Hill as in days of yore. For decades Congress routinely passed, just before breaking for election campaigns, a huge water and dam project bill for the Army Corps of Engineers. It would list perhaps 200 new projects for members to take home to their voters.

Because of the growing deficit and protests from environmentalists who oppose many of the projects, Congress has not passed a new water project bill since 1976. In fact, it has been ''deauthorizing'' some 450 projects that either have lost their supporters or been found unnecessary.

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Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers continues work on unfinished projects. It will spend about $831 million this year, and the Reagan administration seeks $ 978 million for 1984. But the Corps can't start new projects without a new authorizing law, so construction spending is down dramatically from the last decade, if inflation is taken into account.

The pressure is building for a major new water project bill during the current Congress. However, this year's bill could be different from past enactments that were little more than congressional wish lists.

''We're really at a crossroads right now, and the trend will, I think, manifest itself within the next month or two,'' says Edward R. Osann, an official with the National Wildlife Federation and a chief opponent of many water projects.

The biggest changes are expected to come in cost-sharing. While Congress once awarded many of the projects as grants, the Reagan administration wants the localities to help pay the bill. So far Congress has balked at the idea, but on Capitol Hill the consensus is that if a new water bill has no cost-sharing plan, it won't win President Reagan's signature.

Beyond cost issues, environmentalists are hoping new projects will be carefully screened and harmful ones discarded. Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota has already introduced a bill with 101 harbor, flood control, waterway, and related projects, which have passed somewhat more rigorous tests than in past years.

Senator Abdnor, who chairs the subcommittee on water resources, has even left out a proposed $1 billion Gregory County hydroelectric project in his home state because it has not yet completed the Corps of Engineers review process. (''He's concerned that the bill really has to fly right,'' according to an aide, who also says that the South Dakota hydro program can be added later.)

''There are clunkers in there,'' says Mr. Osann of projects listed in the Abdnor bill. But he adds, ''As a class of projects, this group is marginally better than the work product of the Corps in the past.''

Rep. Bob Edgar (D) of Pennsylvania, an outspoken foe of pork barrel politics and member of the water resources subcommittee that is working on the House water project bill, says, ''I'm encouraged about water.''

He says water-project politics isn't what it once was on Capitol Hill. In the past, he says, a member who wanted a project passed would go, hat in hand, to the chairman of the water resources subcommittee. The chairman would promise to put it in the bill, but admonish the member against objecting to any other projects.

It was a one-for-all-and-all-for-one proposition. Projects including the now controversial Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a multibillion-dollar waterway in Mississippi and Alabama, moved effortlessly through Congress.

Today, the scene is different. The relatively new chairman of the water resources subcommittee, Rep. Robert A. Roe (D) of New Jersey, must struggle just to get a bill passed at all. And he is striving to win over possible opponents such as Edgar.

If the pork is more modest today, it continues to be cut up and distributed in the most traditional way - among the top-ranking members of Congress. When Congress passed an emergency $4.65 billion ''jobs bill'' in March, its stated aim was to combat unemployment. But a generous amount of the money was earmarked for projects in districts represented by lawmakers who wrote the bill, regardless of whether their districts have high unemployment.

Rep. James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, upbraided the House Appropriations Committee, which wrote the jobs legislation, for blatant pork-barreling, especially in the area of transportation. In the end, most of the projects stayed in the bill, but the ''squeaky wheel'' got some grease. Congress added $20 million for mass transit in New Jersey to the final act.

''I would say Congress is operating as usual,'' says David Keating, vice-president of the National Taxpayers Union. If there is a change, he says, it's because worries about the deficit put the spotlight on big projects like the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. But he warns that the growing defense budget permits large-scale waste.

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