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Budget pages harbor the obscure, from halibut to helium

Your tax dollars fund the International Pacific Halibut Commission. They pay for popcorn insurance, Adopt-A-Horse, and aquatic plant control by the Pentagon. Federal money goes for some pretty obscure things. Once you get past the big-ticket purchases -- F-16 airplanes, social security, etc. -- the massive appendix to the proposed 1986 US budget lists dozens of items undreamed of by most taxpayers. What will the National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Citrus do, anyway?

Compared to Medicare, these projects cost hardly anything at all. But they present a vivid picture of government spending, in a way that dry figures labeled ``defense spending'' cannot.

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Take international boards, commissions, and institutes. The US government sponsors, or is a member of, numerous such bodies. The State Department alone budgets some $9 million a year for fisheries commissions, which regulate and protect fishing stocks. The Pacific Halibut Commission, at $715,000 annually, is a bargain compared to the Inter-American Tuna Commission, which costs four times as much.

The US is a member of the International Seed Testing Association ($3,000 a year) and a program simply labeled ``Maintainence of Certain Lights in the Red Sea.'' Then there is the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, for which the budget contains $220,000.

This 30-member commission ``will coordinate its activities with the governments of Spain and Italy and the 1992 Chicago World's Fair, the theme for which will be the 500th anniversary of America's discovery,'' notes the budget.

The US Department of Agriculture is another a gold mine of the arcane. The National Wool Act of 1954 requires among other things that the US support the price of mohair -- an activity estimated to cost $12 million in 1986. Research into possible uses for native latex cost the agency $702,000 this year.

And, yes, the US sells popcorn insurance. The Agriculture Department offers crop insurance to farmers of numerous commodities -- popcorn operations are estimated to cost $15,000 next year. The budget provides no explanation of the proposed Clonal Germplasm Repository for Citrus. But whatever it is, it falls under the purview of the Agricultural Research Service and will be built in Riverside, Calif.

At $277 billion, the proposed Pentagon budget is so big it makes the Agriculture Department look as small as a convenience store. It is so big that it is much easier to grasp its enormity by focusing on small pieces.

The Navy, for instance, spends about $46 million a year on modifying gun mounts. In 1986 it will spend three-quarters of a billion dollars on torpedoes. The Army spends $4 billion a year on ``tracked combat vehicles.''

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But weapons and uniforms are not all the Department of Defense pays for. Currently, budget language allows for the Department of Defense to purchase wigs for individuals, under certain conditions. Among those conditions: ``That the individual has not previously received a wig from the government.''

The proposed US Army Corps of Engineers budget earmarks $8 million for aquatic plant control in '86. Mississippi River flood control would get $300 million. The Naval Academy's laundry service will cost $2 million -- but collect enough in fees to be self-supporting.

Among other obscure cost items in President Reagan's proposed '86 budget:

$870,000 for the Department of Interior's Adopt-A-Horse program.

$6.5 million to cover the losses of the Exell Helium plant. This factory, located in the Texas Panhandle and owned by the Bureau of Mines, produces Grade-A helium for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other federal agencies.

$10.6 million for Republic of Palau operations. Palau is a US trust territory in the South Pacific.

The budget, as well as listing what the government can purchase, is also often used to list what the government cannot do. Members of Congress are forever inserting small paragraphs that prevent the Interior Department from leasing certain wilderness areas for coal mining, for instance. Some of these restrictions are a bit, well, quixotic. This year the budget continues to warn that no one in government may rename Mt. McKinley.

And the budget is often used as an opportunity to boast of what the US accomplishes every year. The appendix is studded with charts detailing all the man-hours, processed applications, and inspection tours the public gets for its $700 billion in taxes. Won't you sleep better tonight knowing that the Coast Guard this year will fund 670 icebreaker deployment days?

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