How a Dog Sled Trail Wends Its Way Into a Spending Bill

Hill's agenda is testament to minutiae of governance

Among the important issues the 104th Congress dealt with this year were welfare, health care, balanced budgets - and the lack of signs along the Iditarod National Historic Trail in Alaska.

Legislators also found time to consider the weighty question of the use of natural fibers in military uniforms. And those worried about the faade of the Savannah, Ga., courthouse annex can relax. Our nation's top lawmaking body is already on record with its concerns about this crucial construction project.

Thought your boss was the world's expert on micromanagement? Think again. In 1996, Congress continued to demonstrate that when it comes to what might charitably be called attention to detail, few can surpass an elected politician.

The above examples - all culled from a huge spending bill passed last September - demonstrate what some call micromanagement unworthy of the national legislature. Critics note that the federal government has millions of employees and experts at its disposal to handle such routine matters as the textiles in Defense Department jumpsuits.

Others, including many elected representatives, say that Congress must sometimes prod a reluctant or slow-moving bureaucracy to act. In this view, Congress is simply using its watchdog authority to force recalcitrant bureaucrats to do what's right.

In any case, congressmen rarely refrain from involvement in an issue if it will gain them political credit or advantage. That is part of the power of incumbency.

Congressionally passed measures, even when only advisory, allow lawmakers to address constituent concerns back in their districts and help them to project a record of accomplishment when campaigning to keep their seats.

And tucking such provisions into a large bill dampens opposition to some representatives' pet projects, since Congress must vote on an all-or-nothing basis and will rarely kill a measure it wants because of a minor paragraph here or there.

Thus the omnibus appropriations bill passed last Sept. 28 presented lawmakers with a prime micromanaging opportunity. The measure contains most of the federal budget for fiscal year 1997, and its explanatory conference report alone runs to 1,200 pages. A perusal of this report reveals all sorts of interesting nuggets.

Dollars for dogsledding

Consider, for instance, the Iditarod. It's a 1,200-mile network of trails that leads from Knik, Alaska, to Nome. Blazed in 1910, the trail is famous for the dog-sledders who used it in 1925 to rush medicine to Nome to combat an epidemic there. Today the trail is best known as the site of an annual professional dog-sled race.

Congress designated the Iditarod as a National Historic Trail in 1976 and the Bureau of Land Management spends about $95,000 a year to support trail activities, but the trail is still not marked. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, a manager of the appropriations bill, wants to change that. "It is my hope that the BLM will begin the monumentation of the trail next year so that recreational visitors can identify and enjoy the trail," he said on the Senate floor. "The official location and monumentation will also serve to protect the trail and provide some protection to users along its thousands of miles of wilderness." Congress included his desire in the funding law.

The natural-fiber mystery

Then there is the matter of the fiber content of military uniforms. Noting "the preponderance of synthetic fibers in most uniforms," Congress in the appropriations report strongly supported "efforts to improve the quality of life for our forces" by directing the Pentagon to report "on the potential for increasing the natural-fiber content of uniforms by Jan. 31, 1997."

This might reflect a lawmaker's concern about the comfort of soldiers and sailors. Or it may be that a representative of a wool- or cotton-producing state wants to make sure his farmers get a share of Pentagon spending. The Monitor was not able to learn which, despite calls to the Senate Armed Service Committee; the Pentagon press office; the Defense Logistics Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.; the Army press office; the Army Materiel Command; the Soldier Systems Command in Natick, Mass.; the House Appropriations Committee; the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee; the office of Senator Stevens, who chairs that subcommittee; and the House National Security Committee.

Congress found numerous other issues that needed its attention. Among them, it:

*Added a provision to ensure that "the materials used for the facade on the US Courthouse Annex in Savannah, Ga., are compatible with the existing building."

*Directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to place 1,000-watt transmitters at Ezel, Pineville, and Pikeville, Ky., to close "gaps in coverage provided by NOAA Weather Radio...."

*Directed that "no user fee be imposed with respect to the Hawaiian Islands National Humpback Whale Sanctuary."

*Recommended the Army Corps of Engineers spend $200,000 out of existing funds "for a study to research the long-term durability and quality of cement produced by using hazardous-waste materials as fuels."

*Requested that the Air Force Space Command reconsider its decision to pay for tuition and books for nuclear-missile crew studying for master's degrees.

*Urged the Air Force to consider requesting funding "for construction of an aircraft towway between Tinker Air Force Base [in Oklahoma] and a privately built and operated corrosion-control and paint facility to be constructed on a site adjacent to the base."

*Directed the Defense Department "to forgive the remaining 5,000 ballistic helmets and their monetary value loaned to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department [since April 1993]."

*Told the Postal Service to do a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed move of the Jessup, Mo., Post Office from its location downtown and report back by Feb. 1, 1997.

*Expressed the view that "given the remote distance of Alaska and Hawaii from the US mainland, the many tax-compliance issues unique to the communities and geography of these states, and their taxpayers' inability to receive needed assistance by the toll-free line," the IRS should station appropriate problem-resolution and tax-examination personnel in each state.

Taxpayers in the lower 48, please stay on the line. The next available representative will assist you.

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