WHEN HOUSE REPUBLICANS wanted to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing clean air laws against cement kilns in Missouri, they turned to the stealthy and obscure appropriations process.
A spending bill passed last week contains a provision that in effect blocks enforcement of clean air and water laws by barring the Environmental Protection Agency from spending money on enforcement until Congress reauthorizes the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.
Missouri has one-fourth of the cement kiln capacity in the United States; its kilns burn toxic wastes of all kinds from across the country in their 3,000-degree furnaces.
Unlike the days when Democrats ruled the House, Republicans seem less interested in influencing the Appropriations Committee to build dams, airports, military bases and other pork-barrel monuments.
Instead, some members of the appropriations subcommittees, which must approve spending for all federal programs, are fulfilling an ideological agenda. With the strong support of conservative lobbying groups, they are writing and adding amendments that change social and government policy.
Other members are using the Appropriations Committee to do what politicians on Capitol Hill long have done: reward their friends and supporters with special exemptions from federal regulations.
Democratic critics and Congress watchers agree on one point: Making policy changes in the Appropriations Committee in effect shuts out the public and prevents a full airing of changes in federal activity.
Whether the policy changes made this way will survive the scrutiny of the full House or in conference with the Senate is another matter. But if the changes survive, President Bill Clinton will have to choose either to sign the spending bills with the changes attached or send them back with a veto.
This legislative development has caught the eye of such Congress-watchers as Joe White of the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book on the role of the appropriations panels in both House and Senate.
"What's happening this year is there is a new political agenda out there," White said. "There are far more attempts to change policy through the …