Washington — When the Pacific Ocean current known as El Nino changed the water and climate conditions last year, fishermen found their salmon nets empty. And a drought that hit much of the American farm belt cost farmers millions of dollars in lost crops.
So a group of West Coast congressmen and Iowa Democratic Reps. Neal Smith and Tom Harkin are responding with a proposed law to permit these fishermen and farmers to apply for disaster loans from the federal Small Business Administration.
That item is just one of hundreds that both houses of Congress are attaching to the giant so-called continuing resolution, which is the funding bill that must be passed by next week to keep the federal government operating. It is also one of many that threatens a standoff between the White House and Capitol Hill, as lawmakers attempt to slip in their favorite projects just before the final bell sounds and Congress adjourns for the election campaign.
The master of this process, Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D) of Mississippi, chairs the House Appropriations Committee, which is chiefly responsible for dividing up the federal largess. He argued strenuously last week in favor of allowing members to add domestic projects to the catchall funding bill, which includes 1985 funding for nearly all of the federal government.
''You would strike out matters of importance to House members, but you keep the $1.8 billion that we increased foreign aid,'' he protested to his colleagues. Chairman Whitten prevailed, and the House voted to open the floodgates, adding hundreds of projects to the heavily weighted bill.
Many of the proposals will almost certainly be stripped from the funding measure, which still must be reconciled with the Senate version and may be vetoed by the President. But, in the meantime, members can at least show they are trying to bring home something for their constituents.
For example, Mr. Whitten has included in the catchall funding legislation $10 million to speed up construction of a highway that goes from his north Mississippi district and through the district of fellow Appropriations Committee member Tom Bevill (D) of Alabama.
''It is important that this work proceed expeditiously in order to take advantage of the favorable construction climate in that region of the country,'' says the funding bill report, which was written by the Whitten committee.
Whitten may have trouble protecting that added funding, since the Senate Appropriations Committee opposes it. His pet project is but one of many vying for approval during the next few days.
Although the Senate version of the 1985 funding measure, as written by its committee, is scaled down, members are expected to make additions as the bill is taken up on the floor of the upper chamber.
The practice of trying to ''bring home the bacon'' by loading up the last few bills is common to both parties and both houses.
''Every year we say how bad this process is, and every year we continue,'' says Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California.
''It's a fact of life,'' says a top GOP aide in the House, who adds that some of the projects are justified. ''It's an ongoing balancing between the national interest'' and the local constituent desires, he says.
Republicans are usually less involved in pork-barreling than Democrats, if only because they tend to be more cautious about spending for domestic programs. ''I don't run on what I get for my district,'' says Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R) of California, although she concedes that ''projects do have a place.''
Rep. Tony Coelho of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says that when a member of Congress can win passage of a project, ''it says that you are able to deliver to your district.''
The top leaders practice that kind of politics. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee has pending a proposed new highway to go from Oak Ridge to Knoxville, while House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts is pressing for a new harbor tunnel for Boston.
Even one of the most adamant opponents of so-called pork-barrel politics, Rep. Bob Edgar (D) of Pennsylvania, finally has some pork of his own in the current spending proposal. For several years, he has singlehandedly fought against massive water-project bills allocating millions for reservoirs and dam projects in the West.
The 1985 continuing resolution, as passed by the House, incorporates a public-works bill that he calls ''relatively good'' because it involves minimum requirements for local cost-sharing and because it includes rehabilitation of aged water systems of older, Northeastern cities. That public-works bill authorizes some 300 water projects, including dams and reservoirs as well as repair work.