US Budget Appendix Is Guide to Minutiae

Your tax dollars subsidize rifle practice, honesty in seed selling - a letter from Washington

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

YOU are about to plant the nasturtium seeds you bought at the hardware store when doubt overwhelms you. You peer into the package. They don't look right. They should be bigger. Maybe these are marigolds. Maybe they're bits of gravel. Maybe you got gypped.

You never had this problem? Still, you can rest easy: The United States seed police are on the job. Federal seed inspectors will conduct 3,700 inspections of seed samples in the US this year to "help ensure truthful labeling of agricultural and vegetable seeds," states the just-released Clinton administration budget. It's all in a day's work for the US government.

So is watermelon market research, and jewel-bearing production, and nuclear physics, and battle monuments oversight.

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The federal government is a vast enterprise, which, along with its well-known activities (defense, Social Security, tobacco subsidies) carries out lesser-publicized work in great diversity.

The budget appendix, a 1,000-plus page volume issued by the White House every year, is the only thorough guide to this bureaucratic economy. Its devoted readers find something new every year. What, for instance, is the Department of Veterans Affairs $39 million Post-Vietnam-Education program (Page 28)? Does it teach schoolchildren about the world since Vietnam - or does it teach post-Vietnam veterans?

Who serves on the National Commission on Manufactured Housing (Page 193)? Do they have to be confirmed by the Senate? Did they hire illegal aliens to care for their children? What does non-manufactured housing look like?

Benefit payments, outright grants, and net interest account for 65 percent of federal spending. Defense takes another 18 percent. Only 6 percent of the budget goes for "other" - the seed inspectors, and watermelon promoters, and prosecutors, and air traffic controllers, and vice-presidential salaries, etc., etc.

This is not an article that will tut-tut about wasted federal funds. We have Ross Perot to take care of that, and in any case, the federal budget is so mammoth that the amount of money involved in "other" isn't large, relatively speaking.

Then again ... do we really need a $2 million National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (Page 69)? To be fair, this does come out of the Army budget, and it is a speck of dust compared to tank spending. It pays for rifle ranges and ammunition sales, among other things, to promote a better-armed citizenry.

More defensible is the American Battle Monuments Commission (Page 1,037). It uses $19 million in federal funds a year to maintain all US memorials for battles fought since April 6, 1917, both in the US and overseas. But it is not to be confused with the Commission for Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad (Page 1,045), which has $200,000 or so to try to save cemeteries, buildings, and monuments associated with our foreign heritage.

Some activities do not cost money. The government-owned Willam Langer Jewel Bearing Plant (Page 494), at Rolla, N.D., is the only such facility in the US. It is a revolving fund - in other words, it sells a product and brings in as much as it costs the US to run it. The Agriculture Department really does have a $600,000 program for watermelon market research (Page 309). But it's paid for by assessments from producers - as are similar programs for everything from beef to pecans.

As the US is the world's only superpower, it is expected to support a number of international organizations and conferences (Page 817). These range from NATO to the International Office of the Vine and Wine.

But never let it be said that the Clinton administration hasn't found fat to cut. The Points of Light Foundation (Page 226) is slated for elimination - not too surprising, considering it started life as a reference in a George Bush campaign speech in 1988.

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