Whistleblowers who report their agencies' squandering of tax dollars could receive bonuses of up to $20,000 under a provision squirreled away in the big budget reconciliation bill. But there is no money set aside for the program, and the officials who would make the awards, the inspectors general, are not enthusiastic about it.

The provision, the godchild of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), authorizes agencies to reward an unspecified number of employes who disclose waste, fraud or mismanagement. The employe can receive $10,000 or 1 per cent of the savings resulting from the disclosure, whichever is less. In addition, the president may award $20,000 bonuses to up to 50 whistleblowers each year.

The agency bonuses would be awarded by the inspector general, an officer within some departments and agencies who investigates charges of waste or fraud.

"It's generally felt that there are enough incentives for people so-called 'blowing the whistle' that this type of compensation is unnecessary," said Robin Raborn, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. Because of opposition from the inspectors general and questions about how the program would be implemented, cash grants may never be made under the program, she said.

Schroeder could not be reached for comment late last week because she was touring Asia. Previously, she said the agency awards would be an extra tool for inspectors general to combat waste and that public presentation of the presidential awards would help "overcome the fear that seizes most would-be whistleblowers." All 50 presidential awards should be presented each year, she said.

The inspectors general learned of the proposal only as it was nearing a final vote and quickly expressed their concern. Paul R. Boucher, the inspector general of the Small Business Administration, conducted a quick poll and found seven inspectors general opposed and seven in favor of the cash incentives. Even those in favor had strong reservations about how it would be implemented, Boucher wrote in a July 27 letter to OMB.

In the letter, Boucher questioned the need for a new program and noted that the Office of Personnel Management already gives cash incentives to federal employes who do outstanding work or save the government money.

However, Richard Brengel, chief of OPM's incentive awards branch, said that while the current program awards cash bonuses to about 700 government employes each year, he doesn't know of any that have gone to whistleblowers. Most awards go to employes who develop an invention or new process that helps the government, or whose overall work has been exceptional, Brengel said.

Boucher also cited a survey by the Merit Systems Protection Board in which only 2 per cent of employes said cash payments would encourage them to point out waste. Eighty-one per cent said they would be more likely to report waste if they knew something would be done to correct it.

Louis Clark, director of the government accountability project of the Institute for Policy Studies, a private think tank, said he was cynical about the new incentives. He said the government record is so poor in protecting whistleblowers, and inspectors general are so lackadaisical, that the program probably will do little good.

"They'll probably need it a bonus for legal fees when they get fired," Clark said. "Now we'll have to add to all the charges aimed at whistleblowers, that they're just after money."

Clark said the bonuses probably would be like the special whistleblower hot lines, which he said were started by people with good intentions but are rarely used.

Andrew A. Feinstein, staff director of the House Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee on civil service, which Schroeder chairs, said the program would be another message from Congress to the agencies that waste is intolerable.

By tying the reward to the amount saved, the new incentives will encourage reporting of large-scale waste rather than just "stolen pencils," Feinstein said.

Schroeder pushed the program into the original House budget bill, and when the dust settled it also appeared among the scotch tape of the hastily compiled Republican substitute. The conference committee, and both chambers, approved the provision with minor changes.

The changes included limiting the program to a three-year trial and requiring the General Accounting Office to document whether the cash awards were really deserved. The legislation does not specify who would make the awards for employes of agencies that don't have inspectors general.