"Who does Jim Dyer think he is? The speaker of the House?" a frustrated Senate Republican asked last week. No, James W. Dyer, as chief clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, is more powerful than the speaker. That explains why the Republican-controlled Congress is speeding over the cliff of federal spending.

Dyer leads the "appropriators" -- Capitol Hill's powerful bipartisan subculture charged with controlling spending -- into breaking the "caps" set by the 1997 balanced budget deal to limit spending. That takes funds out of the Social Security surplus that the Republican leadership had declared out-of-bounds. The alternative would be cigarette tax increases pressed by the White House.

Scavenging Social Security or raising taxes is a Hobson's choice. But that condition is the work product of a 56-year-old career civil servant whose name seldom appears in print, whose face never is on television and whose performance is not subject to public review.

Dyer is the imperial staffer only because elected Appropriations Committee members defer to him. When I last wrote about Dyer, past and present congressmen assailed me for maligning him. No wonder. Dyer is immensely popular on the Hill as the man who won't say no to spending requests -- leading to this predicament.

In layman's language, this is the situation: The Congressional Budget Office has calculated a $14.5 billion current year budget surplus exclusive of funds supposedly dedicated to Social Security. Additional spending beyond the budget has hit $18.6 billion (including $4.1 billion in "emergency" funds for the decennial census and $7.4 billion in farm relief), though it could reach $20 billion. Because a tax increase amid surpluses is politically unimaginable, the money will come from funds claimed to be locked away for Social Security.

The appropriators, led by Dyer, approve ever-rising spending -- as with the Treasury appropriations bill quietly sent to the White House on Thursday. Apart from doubling the next president's salary to $400,000 and raising congressional pay by $4,600, the bill provides a 4.8 percent pay increase for federal employees though President Clinton requested only 4.4 percent. Congress set average annual pay at $60,125 for civil servants in the Washington area and $47,041 elsewhere (compared to the $33,438 overall national average).

Overall, the Treasury spending bill raises spending $240 million over last year's level, with $135 million of that going to the Internal Revenue Service. But subtract last year's one-time building construction funds, and the real increase amounts to $690 million, or 5.3 percent.

When Dyer and the Appropriations Committee set those figures, the House Republican leadership -- specifically, Majority Whip Tom DeLay -- protested. Eight-term Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, the Treasury appropriations subcommittee chairman, was ordered to trim the bill. He did, but the appropriators did not have to worry. All the money was restored by the Senate-House conference.

These funds were taken from other appropriations bills, including the Labor-Health and Human Services measure. Ten-term Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois, the subcommittee chairman handling this bill, has to find $16 billion in additional funds through budgetary gimmickry to keep spending at last year's level (though he surely would like to go even higher). Not seriously considered is an actual reduction in government outlays.

Dyer all year has called privately for breaking the spending caps and perforce depleting the Social Security surplus, and Rep. Porter has been his effective public ally. Responding to my June column, Porter blamed Republican Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma for "derailing the appropriations process." How dare a junior member of Congress, not even a member of the Appropriations Committee, interfere with dogged efforts to scale down government?

In fact, Coburn has learned more about that process than is understood by the appropriators, who delegate their duties to Jim Dyer. Coburn, self-limited to leave Congress next year after three terms, is a rare House member not afraid of criticizing Appropriations Committee members for being led by their chief clerk. "They are not in control of the appropriations process," he told me. The outcome does not promise to be a happy one for Republicans after five years in control of Congress.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.