If you read any appropriations bill carefully, you will usually find a few puzzling sentences. A line item for defense research contracts, for example, might be followed by a specific appropriation to a particular university for a small part of that research. A general figure for hospital construction might be clarified by a direction that 2 percent of that money be spent to build a clinic in a certain town. This kind of language is usually an indication that a government agency, in the course of evaluating thousands of applications for funds, has turned down the pet project of some community. And that community happens to be represented in Congress by an Appropriations Committee member who effectively overrules the executive decision by putting an amendment on a money bill.
Back-door funding of this sort is unfair and unwise, but not uncommon. What Sen. James McClure of Idaho recently accomplished for six of his constituents, however, sets a new standard in the special favors department. The senator slipped into the continuing resolution, which was passed a few days before Christmas during the rush to adjourn, a $4 million payment that was not for a college or a hospital or anything that might contribute to the common good in his state. The beneficiaries were a half-dozen investors, the owners of three parcels of land on which the government wants to build a road.
Buyer and seller often disagree on the price of land, but in this case the parties are unusually far apart. The Justice Department says the parcels are worth $321,000, but it is willing to pay $650,000 to avoid litigation. The sellers asked $4,451,049, a figure the department believes was conjured up by using "blue smoke and mirrors." When the government refused to cave in to this demand, Sen. McClure simply put $4 million into the appropriations measure for his constituents. Rep. Sidney Yates, to his credit, objected at the conference, but succeeded only in getting the figure reduced to $3.9 million.
This truly deplorable end run around negotiators and courts shows a contempt for the public and for the orderly process of dispute resolution. It is an abuse of power to use an appropriations bill to settle a legal dispute in a manner that rewards a handful of wealthy constituents. The people of Idaho should take note. And the president should back up his Justice Department by sending a notice of recission to the Hill asking Congress for the authority to keep this $3.9 million in the Treasury while the parties return to the bargaining table and the courts.