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House Passes Spending Bill

Gingrich and Kasich
House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, left, chats with Speaker Newt Gingrich after the budget vote. (Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)

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  • By George Hager
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 21, 1998; Page A01

    The House approved a massive year-end spending measure last night, funding scores of federal agencies, averting a government shutdown and leaving the members who voted for it in the dark about most of what it contained.

    "Who among the rank-and-file members of the House can say they've read and understood the entire package?" asked Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). "Heck, half the members couldn't even lift it, let alone read it."

    The 40-pound, 16-inch-tall bill includes dozens of high-profile spending compromises on issues such as funding the International Monetary Fund, hiring 100,000 new teachers, providing relief for hard-pressed farmers and ranchers and injecting billions more into the nation's armed forces.

    At the same time, though, members honeycombed the bill with scores of smaller provisions to name post offices, extend Mississippi's duck hunting season, fund water projects and earmark money for local airports.

    And as the last major legislation leaving Congress before the House and Senate adjourn, the measure became a vehicle for bills that members could not finish any other way, including measures to implement the international chemical weapons treaty and reorganize the nation's foreign policy agencies.

    From the sublime to the ridiculous, the crucial to the arguably inconsequential, the bill's 3,825 pages included so many provisions that even members who helped draft it confessed to ignorance about exactly what was in it.

    "Do I know what's in this bill?" asked Senate Appropriations Committee ranking Democrat Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.). "Are you kidding? No. Only God knows what's in this monstrosity."

    The measure also includes a $9.2 billion, nine-year package of tax provisions that extend eight expiring tax and trade items, including the research and development credit for business and an assistance program for workers harmed by the lowering of U.S. trade barriers.

    Other tax provisions include one that will accelerate to 2003 previously enacted legislation to allow self-employed persons to deduct 100 percent of their health insurance costs. The measure was paid for with four changes to tax law, chiefly one that affects real estate investment trusts.

    The Senate was expected to vote to approve the measure this morning, joining the House in clearing the measure for President Clinton's signature and sending members home to campaign barely two weeks before the Nov. 3 elections.

    Despite criticism from conservative Republicans that the bill broke budget discipline and was laden with special-interest projects, the House voted 333 to 95 to approve it. Sixty-four Republicans joined with 31 Democrats to oppose the bill.

    The enormous measure allows Congress to finally finish an annual funding process that was badly hobbled this year by an election-shortened schedule, policy disputes between House and Senate Republicans, and a desire by GOP hard-liners to confront the president on fiscal issues. This was in sharp contrast with last year, when Republicans compromised with the White House to generate the first balanced budget in a generation.

    The omnibus bill packaged eight spending measures Congress never finished, funding at least 10 Cabinet departments and scores of federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The government has been kept open pending passage of this bill by a series of short-term funding measures.

    In a bow to election-year spending pressure, the huge bill also permits $21 billion of spending beyond legally imposed caps for measures that evade budget limits, on the grounds they are emergencies: Bosnia peacekeeping, anti-ballistic missile defense, embassy security, relief for farmers and ranchers, and other matters.

    Congress in effect earmarked nearly a third of this year's surplus for such spending. Critics said most of the "emergencies" in the measure could have been foreseen and accommodated in the regular spending bills, had their colleagues been willing to cut other spending.

    Estimates of the bill's size varied. The House Appropriations Committee pegged the measure at less than $490 billion, but other calculations showed it to be roughly $520 billion -- nearly one-third of all federal spending.

    Members from both parties reviled the year-end negotiations that brought them the bill.

    "We have this godawful mess on the floor [that] represents an incredibly outrageous way to do the country's business," said Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the House Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat.

    "I'm not going to stand here and defend the process because I think it has been ugly," agreed House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.). But Livingston defended the bill and urged his colleagues to vote for it. "By adopting this bill we can show that we can govern," he said. "It is important to vote for this bill and go home to our districts to explain why we should come back."

    Republicans sold their colleagues on the measure's increases for defense, anti-drug efforts and other GOP priorities. Democrats touted big increases for education and other social spending.

    Negotiators jockeyed for almost two weeks to assemble the measure, and most of the high-profile additions and subtractions were measured in the billions -- for example, nearly $18 billion for the IMF and more than $1 billion each for hiring teachers, providing disability payments for Persian Gulf War veterans and allowing the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to refinance expensive federal loans.

    But the battles were also won and lost down in the fiscal weeds, often for amounts smaller than $1 million.

    For example, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) led a successful effort to wedge $750,000 into the omnibus bill to pay half the cost of rebuilding a flood-destroyed dam on Archusa Lake in Quitman, Miss.

    The money had been removed from an earlier Senate-passed supplemental appropriations bill, in part, critics said, because the lake is purely recreational and the dam is not the sort of flood control, navigation or shoreline protection project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers normally performs.

    While the Mississippians were winning, however, New York's delegation lost a battle to provide a tax exemption that would have been worth about $370,000 to David Kaczynski, who plans to turn over to victims the $1 million reward he got from the FBI for turning in his brother, Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski. The tax exemption would have increased the amount that could go to the victims.

    Included in the spending measure at the last minute was a bill to bring the United States into compliance with a treaty -- banning production, storage or use of chemical weapons -- that was approved last year by the Senate. The treaty compliance bill had been held up earlier by maneuverings involving a variety of other issues, including payment of back dues to the United Nations and an unrelated antiabortion restriction.

    The legislation authorizes inspection of American chemical facilities by international personnel but only under restrictions demanded by lawmakers as the price for approval of treaty. These restrictions give the president authority to block surprise inspections on national security grounds, require an FBI counterintelligence officer to attend inspections and mandate that samples from American inspection sites be tested in this country.

    Without passage of the law, the United States would have been in technical violation of the treaty.

    The bill also was expanded to include long-delayed legislation to reorganize foreign policy agencies, including merging the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the State Department.

    Staff writers Charles R. Babcock and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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