As if the budget process weren't complicated enough, the House and Senate Budget Committee conferees have made it more so. At least as far as funding goes for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. As they went to conference two weeks ago, the House budget report assumed the president's proposed figures for the endowments ($100 million for NEA, $96 million for NEH). The Senate budget called for maintaining the endowments at this year's spending level ($143 million for NEA, $130 million for NEH).

When the conference ended in the wee hours a week and a half ago, conferees decided to take the House budget. The report they made breaks the budget into functions, each with budgeted funds. But that figure isn't necessarily broken down into amounts for agencies that fall under those functions. For instance, the NEA and the NEH fall within Function 500, and there is no set amount mentioned for either agency.

As a result, House and Senate aides offer completely different versions of what the conference report assumes will be the funding level for NEA and NEH. And each side knows the other is giving a different version.

"During the conference there was no discussion of the subtotals within functions," said Jan Lilja, a Senate budget committee staffer. "The Senate side is assuming arts and humanities funding will be held even at this year's level ." She added in the same breath: "The House isn't."

From a House staffer: "The Senate took the House position," which calls for lower funding for NEA and NEH. "I have to assume the conference report passed those House assumptions." Says this House aide: "The Senate is trying to please everyone. They want to be good liberals and good conservatives."

Of course, the irony of all this is that by the time you figure out what's happening here, it won't matter--because budget figures are simply guidelines to the appropriations committees, which will very deliberately fill in all the money figures