The Washington Post Column

No Bottom To This Barrel

As I write these words, a dusty, year-old copy of the “Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2003” sits beside me on my desk. There are four thick volumes: a user-friendly version (with pictures) for the media and other lightweights; a smaller-print version containing “analytical perspectives” for economics wonks; a hefty, 1,266-page appendix; and, for the truly avid, a supplemental volume of historical tables containing lists of numbers with titles such as “Summary of receipts, outlays and surpluses or deficits as percentages of GDP: 1930-2007.”

Fascinating things can be learned perusing these volumes, which contain the administration’s original budget proposals for fiscal 2003. One of the things that cannot be learned, however, is what the fiscal 2003 budget appropriations bills will actually contain when they are finally passed by the House and the Senate — possibly today, possibly tomorrow, certainly long after fiscal 2003 actually began. Nowhere, for example, is it possible to find a sentence stating that “Alaska forests shall be exempt from regulations which apply to forests in other states” or a phrase hinting that “people who object to government policy in Alaska forests shall be forbidden to take their case to the courts.”

Despite their absence from the published budget, despite the fact that they have never been debated or discussed on the floor of any legislative chamber, and despite the fact that they have nothing to do with the budget, these changes to Alaska forest regulation were nevertheless inserted into the bill last weekend by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who happens to be chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And, if they have not already been removed by the conference committee that has been arguing, in secret, over this gargantuan piece of legislation for the past several days, they will soon become law.

Reading this, Washington insiders will roll their eyes, knowing full well that this sort of thing happens all the time. Stevens has been doing it for years. Thanks partly to his skill at stuffing riders into appropriations bills, Alaska has the highest rate of pork per capita in the nation. This year’s budget is no exception, containing not only some $35 million in subsidies for Alaska fishermen but — according to Sen. John McCain’s annual pork list — $100,000 for the Alaska Sea Otter Commission, $200,000 for a people mover in Anchorage and $200,000 to study seafood waste at the University of Alaska.

But the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time, and the fact that everybody does it, shouldn’t make it any more acceptable, whatever your opinion about Alaska forests and however badly you want to cut them all down. Nor should the somber budgetary vocabulary be allowed to conceal the true nature of an irresponsible and anti-democratic process. What is “omnibus appropriations legislation,” after all, except a bundle of 11 complex bills, debated and discussed in a few days and finalized in secret? And what is a “rider,” if not a piece of legislation stuck, irrelevantly, to another piece of legislation, simply because it would never make it through the ordinary lawmaking process?

It’s hard to maintain a consistent level of outrage about common, everyday legislative practice. It’s also hard to maintain a consistent level of outrage if little information about the outrageous behavior is available. Perfunctorily, I called Stevens’s office to ask about the riders, and, perfunctorily, I was told that the senator does not comment on any aspect of the appropriations process until it is over. Nor will the public hear about these last-minute debates. And the public is interested: Some 600 meetings were held and 2 million public comments were made during the 18-month public discussion of the “roadless rule,” which protects the remaining unlogged, uncharted chunks of America’s forests from loggers. Yet if this omnibus legislation passes with these riders, the roadless rule will no longer apply to Alaska. Many of the people who participated in that 18-month debate will be outraged by the change, but, as Stevens well knows, 72 hours is an awfully short time to orchestrate a national campaign.

And that, in the end, is precisely the point. Why involve the public if you can make unpopular legal changes behind closed doors? That’s the lesson of the long, drawn-out, agonizing appropriations process for fiscal 2003 — a lesson we shall no doubt learn again in fiscal 2004.