THE BEST FIGHTS in this city are often conducted in the finest print. An elegant example is Section 1506(a) of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, one of the two great forests of such print that an unknowing Congress passed as it went home for the holidays. The lyric passage reads, in its entirety: "The first sentence of section 2 of Public Law 87-155 (15 U.S.C. 713a-11) is amended by striking out', commencing with the fiscal year ending June 30, 1961' and inserting in lieu thereof 'by means of a current, indefinite appropriation.' "
Perhaps you wonder who cares. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Jamie Whitten, does. This briar patch of legislative prose seeks -- all in code, of course -- to clip his power. It involves such earthy and familiar issues as Mr. Whitten's legendary influence over agriculture policy, the stature of the appropria-tions committees in Congress -- they are indecline -- and the future of perhaps the hardest-puffing legislative locomotive of the last three years.
In particular, the language has to do with the Commodity Credit Corp., the vessel out of which the government pays farm income and price supports. Five times in the last three years of record costs, the original appropriation for the CCC has proven insufficient and Congress has had to enact a supplemental. These must-pass supplemental bills -- lest the vital supports stop -- have often carried more than just farm money. In the eyes of their critics, they have been devices 1) to bust the budget once the budget fight for a year is safely out of the news; 2) to strengthen the appropriators, by giving them the means to hand out extra party favors; and 3) to keep the Agriculture Department, if not exactly grateful, then certainly subservient.
For all these reasons the administration and some others have wanted to put the CCC on a longer leash. That is what Section 1506 would do by making its appropriation "indefinite." The department, beginning presumably in 1989, would only have to come to Mr. Whitten once a year. Mr. Whitten, for his part, was busily trying to shorten the leash instead. In the other megabill that Congress passed as it left town, the continuing resolution, which was under his control, he subdivided the CCC into 17 separate line items, each with its own cap, creating 17 leashes. It is not clear how the seeming conflict will be resolved.
From Mr. Whitten's perspective, this is not the simple issue the critics describe. He would argue that the appropriators get a bum rap. The administration now professes to deplore supplementals as budget-busters. Yet it has itself often sought them for its own purposes, and just as often caused them, by requesting sums it knew would be insufficient, just to shift the blame to Congress and hold its budget down. Mr. Whitten also thinks the costly farm programs are in several important respects wrongheaded, yet as written by the rival authorizing committees, they are beyond his reach. The support payments, as entitlements, are part of the rising share of the budget over which the appropriators have no control. So turf and policy are intertwined.
Section 1506(a) doesn't mention any of these concentric issues. Not one member in 20 was aware of them as the two houses voted last month. That is how the game is played in the back pages of omnibills like these. It is another example of why such bills -- in which enormous issues go not merely undebated, but unrecognized -- are such bad ideas.