WASHINGTON -- When the House slashed $17.2 billion from the budget this week to pay for disaster relief and make a small down payment on reducing the deficit, it overlooked one plump target.
Left untouched -- after deep cuts in housing for the poor and elderly, reductions in school aid, and the elimination of summer jobs for teen-agers -- was $280 million allocated for highway pork projects.
Members didn't even get a chance to vote on whether to cut them.
Under the rule granted by the Republican leadership to control debate, an amendment by Rep. Ronald D. Coleman, a Texas Democrat, was barred.
He wanted to trim the highway projects -- many of which had never been requested by state transportation authorities -- and use the savings to restore funds for housing aid and the women DTC and infant feeding program.
"There's almost $300 million earmarked for 400 highway demonstration projects and another $1.6 billion in unobligated funds for them," Mr. Coleman said. "Why are they off limits when we're cutting programs for kids and old people?"
The reason is rather simple.
Republican leaders acknowledged that they could not pass the budget bill for 1995 if the highway pork was sliced.
The bill was "extremely difficult to pass" as it stood, said Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston Jr., a Louisiana Republican. "There were a lot of pitfalls."
He added: "We knew if we tried to take out individual [members'] projects from the bill, we'd lose the vote."
What Mr. Livingston didn't mention is that the insertion of highway pork into spending bills is largely the prerogative of Appropriations Committee members -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- in both houses.
Thus, Louisiana, Mr. Livingston's home state, got $11.5 million in the 1995 budget and stands to get another $37 million before the game is played out.
West Virginia, the home state of former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, is down for $16.6 million this year and another $178 million later on.
The term "demonstration projects" refers to low-priority highway projects that ostensibly demonstrate how safety can be improved, and often do not make the cut when state transportation agencies decide what to build.
Mr. Coleman and other critics of demonstration projects have charged that most of them are so low on the priority list of state transportation agencies that they aren't even mentioned in formal state highway-improvement plans.
GOP budget-cutters have vowed to slash some $500 billion from projected federal spending over the next five years.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican and the new chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, which forks over the pork, warned that he, for one, is rethinking the whole idea of "demonstration" projects.
"I'm recommending that there be no earmarked highway demonstration projects in the 1996 budget," he said. "Considering the enormous job we have ahead of us, it's time to call timeout on this stuff."