Pig Herpes? Drug Paraphernalia? Your Tax Dollars at Work

Welcome to The Drain, an occasional look at how the federal government spends your tax dollars. Today, we'll discuss pig herpes, sick orange trees and a $30 billion slush fund.

But first, the budget: On Thursday, the Treasury Department announced that the government posted a $10 billion deficit last month, but remains on track to end the fiscal year in the black. Through Aug. 31, the annual budget surplus had grown to $170 billion.

Some other highlights:

The government collected nearly $129 billion more in personal and corporate taxes through the first 11 months of this fiscal year that it did last year.

Does anyone care that it's a presidential election year? It's made no difference to taxpayers, who through August had given $60 million to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, or the same amount as last year.

The Food Stamp program continues its decade-long drop. This year, the government has already spent $600 million less on food stamps than last year. Some credit a strong economy flush with jobs; others blame program changes that they say have limited eligibility.

Year-to-year spending is running higher among nearly every Cabinet-level department. The exceptions are the Energy Department (down 10 percent to $13.04 billion) and the Labor Department (down 3 percent to $28.8 billion).

The biggest jump occurred in the Agriculture Department, which saw spending jump 12 percent - or $7.2 billion - from August to August.

Which leads us to the pork, oranges and greenbacks.

One of the largest spending hikes within the Agriculture Department came from the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the agency responsible for battling crop and livestock diseases and keeping invasive pests off our plants and outside our borders. APHIS has more than 5,000 employees patrolling airports and ports, monitoring crops and herds, working with farmers and in foreign countries. Much of its time is spent waging war on enemies with names such as the Asian long-horned beetle and the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

It's becoming a pricey war.

For the current fiscal year, Congress approved $530 million for APHIS. But through August, the agency had already spent $601 million. In fact, by the time the year ends, APHIS could end up spending nearly twice as much money as appropriated by Congress.

But you won't see that reflected in the federal budget, because the money comes from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a $30 billion Agriculture Department slush fund. The CCC was a New Deal program established to keep crop prices stable through emergency treasury loans and payments to struggling farmers. Its ostensible purpose remains the same today to protect and preserve U.S. agriculture but Congress gives the Secretary of Agriculture a blank check to disperse CCC funds as he sees fit.

Between 1991 and 1995, the corporation gave APHIS about $52 million in emergency funds to combat outbreaks, such as the fruit fly. Since 1996, that total has ballooned to $432 million, with at least $100 million more in pending requests. On top of all the other money, the agency is collecting more than ever in fees - about $1 billion from international travelers and shippers since 1991 and as much as $200 million next year.

"There's no question: That's the most money that APHIS has ever spent," said Kevin Shea, the agency's former budget director, who now oversees policy and program management. Shea and others in the department say the culprit is a steady increase in international trade and travel.

So Where's the Money Going? 

The agency spent $130 million in emergency funding over the last two years to counter an outbreak of pseudorabies, a herpes-type infection that most often shows up in swine and has been most acute in Iowa. Also known as Aujeszky's Disease or Mad Itch, pseudorabies is a 150-year-old contagious infection that gives swine breathing problems, lowers their weight, kills piglets or makes sows infertile. It's often been called the biggest threat to the nation's $30 billion pork industry.

But the folks who are most threatened are also the ones largely to blame for the outbreak, officials say. A depressed market and lower hog prices led many farmers to stop vaccinating or monitoring their herds, and the infection spread. Then the government paid market value for the infected pigs, destroyed them or sent them for rendering, to be used for dog food or fertilizer.

While some of the money goes for APHIS staff - one pending request includes about $8 million to equip and send a team of 35 scientists and monitors to Iowa most is used to compensate farmers. Only now is the agency considering regulations that force the farmers to monitor and vaccinate their herds if they expect to be compensated, insiders say.

Moreover, between 1992 and 1998, the agency spent far less than $10 million a year to slowly beat back pseudorabies. During that span the number of infected herds nationally fell 77 percent, from 8,000 to 1,100.

But despite spending 13 times as much since February 1999, the results are not as impressive: As of last week, 481 infected herds remained in Iowa, about the same as last September, according to Dr. John Schiltz, the state veterinarian.

The other big ticket item at APHIS has been citrus canker, an airborne infection that's harmless to humans but covers citrus trees with a chicken pox-like lesions. Officials say the infection is a threat to Florida's $6 billion citrus industry.

APHIS spent $25 million in emergency funding last year to quell the citrus canker outbreak and received another $90 million this year to work with the state to monitor the situation and destroy the infected trees. Their target list grew substantially when officials changed the long held policy that any tree within 125 feet of an infected one should be destroyed. Now they are cutting down any citrus tree within a radius of 1,900 feet - or nearly one-third of a mile - from an infected one.

More than 160,000 trees have already been cut down, and some say both Dade and Broward County could see the last of their citrus trees disappear.

The outbreak has been traced to a spot near Miami International Airport in 1995 and exacerbated by a hurricane last year. But APHIS might claim a share of the blame as much as it does the solution. Earlier this year, the Agriculture Department's Investigator General's Office said lax enforcement by APHIS inspectors had increased the risk of outbreaks.

Investigators found that inspectors in Miami routinely failed to inspect baggage of international airline and cruise passengers, and let cargo brokers themselves pick which crates of food to inspect. The inspectors were also chided for being consistently late to work and for inappropriate use of government cars. In a five-week span in 1998, for instance, six employees got paid for 90 hours they never worked. In another instance, investigators found drug paraphernalia in a government car used in off-hours by an APHIS employee.

APHIS later promised to institute new controls and toughen its enforcement.

LATER THI$ WEEK: Inspector General Roger Viadero is slated to discuss mismanagement in the Agriculture Department during a Senate hearing Wednesday. In March, Viadero told House investigators that the books at USDA were abysmally maintained and he compared the weaknesses in the department's financial management to "potholes the size of the Grand Canyon."