WASHINGTON -- Who actually doles out the money Congress spends?

For the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious. Take housing for example. Currently, the Senate and House appropriations committees are working on legislation to allocate money to housing programs for next year, but the Senate and House banking committees are doing the same thing. Well, almost.

The banking committees, with jurisdiction over federal housing programs, are considered the authorizing committees. In essence, they decide which housing programs Congress is going to spend money on. The final version of the housing legislation they are drafting this year will set the upper limits for allocations to each housing program.

But it's the appropriators who really have the final say. The appropriations committees in both houses include a subcommittee on the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Veterans Administration, and independent agencies. It is these panels that decide how much will be spent, for example, on the HOME and Community Development Block Grant programs in fiscal 1995, which begins Oct. 1.

Thus, if the banking committees agree to authorize $1 billion for a particular program, but the appropriations committees agree to only $500 million, then $500 million is all the program's going to get. In fact, the pattern repeated over and over again throughout Congress is one where authorizing committees set upper spending limits only to see appropriations committees approve allocations at far lower levels.

So why do the authorizing committees bother? To send a message, housing program advocates say. A committee may authorize $1 billion knowing full well the appropriators will never agree to that amount. But the authorizers want the appropriatots to know how important the program is to their constituencies, and that it needs all the funding that can be spared.

Those messages sent by the authorizing committees are especially important in the case of programs under HUD's jurisdiction because of the way the appropriations subcommittees are set up. In most cases, one panel covers only one area. For example, there is one subcommittee just for agriculture, one for foreign operations, one for defense, and one for transportation.

A few of the appropriations subcommittees look like grab bags. One covers the departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, and the judiciary. Another handles the Treasury, the Postal Service, and general government.

But the HUD subcommittee seems to be the biggest mishmash of them all, covering not only the Veterans Administration, but more than a dozen other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The HUD subcommittee is spreading its dollars over some major and extremely diverse programs: HOME is competing with things like NASA's space shuttle and EPA's wastewater treatment program, for example.

Thus, program advocates make sure to pressure not only the appropriations committees, but the authorizing panels as well. That explains why they were dismayed by a decision by the House Banking Committee's subcommittee on housing and community development on May 26 to authorize $1.275 billion for the HOME program in fiscal 1995 -- substantially less than, the $2.2 billion the subcommittee originally proposed, and by coincidence, the same mount approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

"Reducing the HOME authorization suggests a hostility toward the program which is inconsistent with the [Banking] Committee's longstanding bipartisan support of it," a group of housing organizations said in a letter last month to the panel.

The full House Banking Committee must have gotten the message because it raised the proposed HOME authorization to $1.775 billion in upproving the housing bill on June 17.

For its pan, the Senate Banking Committee has sent an even stronger signal about its support for the HOME program: Its housing bill would authorize up to $2 billion for HOME in fiscal 1995. The Senate Appropriations Committee responded by approving $1.5 billion for the program.

In the end, the appropriators could go back to $1.275 billion. But not without getting the loud, clear message from housing lawmakers that they want as much money as possible for HOME. And who knows -- maybe the appropriators will find more money for it in 1996.

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