Persistent Pork

SO far, there's little evidence that the spate of news reports about "corporate welfare" a couple of months back did much to temper congressional appetites for that brand of pork. The mining and timber subsidies, export subsidies for agricultural exports, and high-tech research grants, to name a few, appear to be doing fine as the Senate and House plunge into the appropriations process.

Analysts at the Cato Institute, one of the think tanks that carefully follow the issue, estimate that, at best, one-tenth of the roughly $80 billion currently being spent to aid private industry is likely to get axed.

We had hoped, at a time when dozens of programs benefiting individual Americans are being whacked, that the political wisdom of making sure corporations took their share of the cuts was inescapable. But even in the age of Gingrich, business as usual retains a strong pull on Capitol Hill.

The House Appropriations Committee recently voted to remove a one-year moratorium on the mineral "patents" program, which allows mining companies to extract billions of dollars in ore from federal land after paying $5 an acre, or less. This particularly rancid piece of corporate pork dates back to 1872. Whatever developmental purpose it may have had then evaporated long ago. It's a virtual giveaway of public assets.

Equally unsavory is the timber salvage "rider" that was headed toward enactment in the 1995 budget recisions bill until that bill was derailed by a last-minute filibuster in the Senate (sparked by issues other than timber). The salvage measure would open federal forest lands to extensive new logging, suspending environmental safeguards in the process and sticking the taxpayer with a bill for millions of dollars in added logging roads. While its vehicle has been waylaid, the rider's backers are no doubt seeking new means of transportation.

Neither Congress nor the Clinton administration has shown much determination to block the corporate pork parade. There are some on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who would like to do so, such as House Budget chairman John Kasich and Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

But the objections most likely to change habits in Congress will come from average Americans who recognize that corporations - no less than welfare or Medicare recipients - should bear their share of the balanced-budget burden.

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