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Spending-bill factory springs some leaks

Congress shows a new resolve to shrink programs, but pet projects and hidden agendas collide in one big bill.

Depending on how you look at it, Congress has either created the budgetary bride of Frankenstein or struck a blow for fiscal responsibility.

Spending on domestic programs is actually falling for only the second time since Republicans took control of the Congress - real cuts that at least begin to address what many experts say is an unsustainable path of deficits.

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At the same time, observers of both liberal and conservative persuasions worry that the massive omnibus bill Congress will send to the White House next week is flawed in ways that don't bode well for the future:

• Lawmakers wrote more than 12,000 member "pork" projects into spending bills this year, a record. Budget watch groups are still ferreting out these earmarks, which are expected to cost at least $24 billion in FY 2005.

• Beyond the overall cap on nondefense, nonhomeland security spending, some say there's no budget philosophy on how Washington should spend resources in tight times.

• The budgetary process itself has been reduced to closed-door negotiations with a handful of congressional leaders.

But what most troubles those who follow the annual spending rituals on Capitol Hill is how few members even get a chance to read giant, end-of-year spending bills before they cast their vote. More than 10 days after lawmakers voted this year's $388.4 billion omnibus spending bill, few members yet know what's in it.

"How broken is this process? It's pretty bad. The average member has no chance to really know what's in the package they're voting on," says Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who asked his staff to complete a review of the omnibus bill Wednesday.

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Conrad has 15 experts on his staff who know their way around a spending bill. One of them already stumbled onto a provision so overreaching that it is holding up the $388 billion omnibus bill until Dec. 6, when the House returns for a vote to eliminate it.

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(The provision would have given the chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations committee or their agents the right to review citizen tax returns and release information about them, without civil or criminal penalties.)

Despite a surge in pork, Congress is sending President Bush the leanest nondefense spending bill in nearly a decade. Overall nondefense spending dropped to $401.8 billion - the first aggregate decline since 1995. Affordable housing programs in the Department of Housing and Urban Development took a $378 million hit. The Environmental Protection Agency faces a $278 million reduction from 2004, mainly affecting state and local water projects.

Congress also reined in their own budget for the legislative branch, including cuts for the Government Printing Office and the Architect of the Capitol. Lawmakers are targeting the Architect of the Capitol for cost overruns for the Capitol Visitor Center that could reach $100 million.

Still, lawmakers found $1 million for the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss.; $250,000 to repair a gymnasium in Caribou, Maine; and $250,000 for a new firetruck for Tijeras, N.M. These are a few of some 13,000 individual pork-barrel projects written into 2005 spending bills, including defense and homeland security spending, according to estimates by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a public interest group in Washington.

"An earmark is not necessarily bad, but the ones we track - the pork - are added at the last minute, done without consultation with the agency and did not go through a competitive process," says David Williams, vice president of CAGW, which tracks such projects annually. "It will take months to run down all of them," he adds.

One of the toughest habits to break in official Washington is the setting aside of taxpayer dollars for member projects that bypass a competitive process. Of the $30 million provided for historical preservation under the Save America's Treasures program, for example, only half are awarded by competitive grant. "If a member has a project, why not just include it in a competitive process?" says Mr. Williams. "If it's worthy, it should get funded."

When Republicans won back control of the House in 1994, they promised to curb deficits by reining in federal spending on matters they said were best left to the states and local governments, such as education. Instead, the Bush administration has nearly doubled education spending in the past four years. The omnibus bill includes $12.8 billion for programs for low-income school districts and $10.7 billion for special education grants to states.

"The Republicans have no budget philosophy," says Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy at the Cato Institute. "They have completely forgotten their rhetoric of a decade ago. With a social security crisis coming, do we need to be spending federal tax dollars on a rock-n-roll museum in Cleveland or sidewalks in Boca Raton?"

It's a battle sure to be engaged in the 109th Congress, where fiscal conservatives have strengthened their numbers in both the House and Senate.