WHILE the federal government is going through one of the largest budget-slashing sessions in history, the Woodlands Job Corps Center in Laurel, Md., is building a new 300-bed dormitory - courtesy of federal funds. Nearby, in Washington, the National Gallery of Art is drawing up plans - thanks again to Uncle Sam - for how to use an anticipated 4 percent budget increase. Across town, at the Department of Energy, more white-smocked engineers may be hired for an expected expansion of the agency's environmen tal cleanup program.
From social welfare and arts causes to seemingly doomed Cabinet agencies, a surprising number of federally funded programs are slated for budget increases in 1996, even as overall federal funding promises to decline. Some of the biggest victors, such as the Pentagon and National Institutes of Health, are predictable, with lawmakers protecting jobs in their backyards. More surprising are the cultural and poverty programs, once derided as frivolous or ineffective, that have gotten the nod from Capitol Hil l.
The net result may be a 1996 budget that's not entirely free of pork-barrel spending - or social sensitivity. Republicans may be committed to balancing the budget, but it turns out that they too can be affected by constituent desires and the normal give and take of appropriations politics.
Take the $1-billion-plus Job Corps program, for instance. The nation's largest and most expensive training course for troubled youths, it was under intense scrutiny during the past eight months as lawmakers considered eliminating this remnant of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Labor Department officials defended the Job Corps record of providing housing, counseling, and high school and vocational education for the 1.5 million people who pass through the system.
Congress did not agree to the $100 million boost in the Jobs Corps budget the Clinton administration requested. But the Senate pledged $4 million in additional funding, while the House supports a $31 million increase. The ultimate number will likely fall somewhere in between.
''We're very, very pleased,'' says Mary Silva, deputy director of Job Corps. ''We survived the scrutiny.'' Rhetoric from Capitol Hill has made it sound like all the federally funded domestic programs are on the endangered list, she says. ''What we see is the willingness of Congress to invest in what works.''
The House and Senate also agreed to shore up resources for the Women with Infant Children program (WIC), an Agriculture Department food supplement for low-income mothers. The budget of the controversial program will actually rise to an anticipated $3.7 billion in 1996, falling just shy of the Clinton administration's $3.8 billion request.
Money for Monets
Congress also plans to deliver a strong endorsement to the country's preeminent custodian of the visual arts: the National Gallery of Art. Bitter partisan wrangling erupted over federal arts funding, which has long enjoyed liberal support. Yet despite all the handwringing over Uncle Sam's patronage, the gallery is expected to receive a 4 percent-plus budget increase. Also targeted for a 2.8 percent boost over 1995 is the Smithsonian Institution, purveyor of a host of museums and educational programs. Th e John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Holocaust Memorial Council retained current funding levels.
Even the vaunted goal of slimming down government agencies has been tempered as specific programs have found favor with lawmakers. The Department of Energy (DOE), among other departments, has been been fighting for its very existence. DOE officials have battled GOP claims that its functions are irrelevant, its inefficient operations a waste of taxpayer money. But while the overall budget for DOE will shrink, both the Senate and the House want to beef up two major DOE responsibilities: environmental clea nup and nuclear-weapons development.
''Almost incredibly, while justly criticizing the president for advocating big government, the Republican appropriations process has not hesitated to bring in a few million here and there for favored Energy Department programs, even if the president did not ask for them,'' says John Tottie, an analyst with Citizens for a Sound Economy, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.
Even some signature programs at the much-maligned office of Housing and Urban Development are faring just fine. Rep. Rick Lazio (R) of New York, who chairs the House Banking Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, says federal housing assistance will enable more units than first anticipated to be built in 1996. ''Overall we're in a better position, partly because our projected $600 million cut was restored.'' Mr. Lazio says he's fighting hard for the funding: ''I'm trying to hold harmless the
people who can't protect themselves because of age, disability, disease, or homelessness.''
Advocates of fiscal austerity worry about these and a host of other surprising victors in the budget battle. More federal outlays for selected programs instead of across-the-board cuts is no way to balance the budget, warns Mr. Tottie.
He finds congressional calls for more spending in fiscal 1996 than in 1995 ''absolutely outrageous.... The 104th Congress was supposed to be the Congress that put an end to business as usual.''
But the greatest evidence against that theory may reside in the Defense Department budget, which will get an astounding $6.7 billion increase next year - far exceeding the president's request.
Newport News Shipyard, for example, Virgina's largest private employer, was originally slighted by the White House in favor of Connecticut's Electric Boat when nuclear-submarine contracts were being parceled out.
Politics of pork
Eventually the naval industrial giant was given a bigger piece of the action. ''There is a bipartisan effort to deliver pork'' for an election-year payoff, says Richard Bitzinger, an analyst with the private Defense Budget Project.
''Employers and their workers are constituents of local politicians,'' says Murray Weidenbaum, who served as President Reagan's top economic adviser and now runs Washington University's Center for the Study of American Business in St. Louis. ''Politicos' instincts will push them to preserve programs.'' And, he adds, ''people who benefit from a specific government program see a very worthy exception to fiscal austerity when it benefits them.''
But what about the future fiscal health of the nation? ''It's hard for members of Congress to keep their eye on the broader goal of balancing the budget when they're down trying to wrestle for more dollars for their district,'' says Susan Tanaka, vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget. ''That's where they're rewarded, and there are very few awards for cutting spending. Politicians want to get reelected; what happens to their grandchildren is a long way off.''