The illusion of the budget confrontation ending this session of Congress was pointed up last week, when President Clinton vetoed a massive Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill authorizing nearly twice as much spending as the last Democratic Congress in 1994.

It's not that the Republican-controlled Congress shirked the education spending in this bill, even by the president's standards. Clinton's veto message complained about insufficient funds for new teachers and other pet projects. But oddly, he did not protest profligate earmarking of special projects by lawmakers that has mired the 105th Congress in pork.

The responsibility is bipartisan. Members of Congress, led by the appropriations committees, have found a different way to transform tax money into politically beneficial projects back home. Earmarking has been carried to unprecedented lengths by this Congress. "It bothers me, because it really changes the system," House Speaker Dennis Hastert told me. This partly explains why House Republican leaders could not get a real grip on spending.

A case in point concerns two worthy projects by the University of Notre Dame: helping teachers in poor schools and trying to improve the academic performance of low-income students. The Senate Appropriations Committee report merely commended these projects to federal bureaucrats with no spending required by either the House or Senate bill. But magically, the final version by the Senate-House Conference Committee contains a $500,000 appropriation for Notre Dame.

Congressmen attaching each others "goodies" to appropriations bills is nearly as old as the republic. "It is a special spending committee, with its own key to the Treasury," the young Woodrow Wilson said of the House Appropriations Committee in "Congressional Government," published in 1885. But current appropriators have perfected the "log-rolling" deplored by Wilson. Republican leaders resorted to the meat-ax one percent across-the-board spending cut to avoid using Social Security revenue.

The system is testimony to the effectiveness of closed-door government. The House and Senate spend months passing appropriations bills after hearings, committee deliberations and floor debates. But at this time of year, when lawmakers are near adjournment, the fun begins. In the dark of the night, Senate and House conferences earmark millions of dollars for the states and districts of individual members.

The Labor-HHS bill is the really horrid example. It spends $103.6 billion, which is $10.3 billion more than last year -- $1.2 billion more than Clinton requested -- and has twice as many earmarks as any other measure. This reflects the free-spending Republican subcommittee chairmen handling the bill: Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois.

The Labor-HHS Conference Committee finished its work at 8:30 p.m. the night before the House was to pass the bill. No copy of the bill was available until 11:15. As a result, anybody who desired to study it had to stay up all night. That included the staff of Rep. Tom Coburn, the budget hawk from Oklahoma.

What Coburn's team found was startling. Twenty earmarks of $50,000 each to local Alabama school boards -- courtesy of the state's master appropriator, Rep. Sonny Callahan. From coast to coast, money was dispensed without hearing or debate: $2 million for Chicago North Community Unit school district; $1 million for the River City Delta Regional Early Child Development Center; $1.5 million for the 2002 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska.

In this bill as in others, the 49th state runs well in the earmarks derby because its leading politician, Sen. Ted Stevens, heads the Senate Appropriations Committee: $500,000 for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; $900,000 for the University of Alaska at Anchorage; $600,000 for the Alaska Department of Education; $600,000 for the Alaska Center for Independent Living; $1 million for the Alaska Humanities Forum; $250,000 for the Kodiak Island Borough school district; $750,000 for the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

"Our strategy failed," Coburn told me. In the end, the House GOP leadership failed on Friday, when so many Republicans defected that a Democratic majority was needed to pass an earmarked-heavy Foreign Operations bill that was $2 billion more expensive than an earlier version.

Wait 'til next year? Next year is a presidential election year. It could get worse and probably will.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.