Word of what some on Capitol Hill fear may become the next major congressional scandal is beginning to leak out.

The Justice Department apparently is investigating allegations that lawmakers illegally have used their staffs for campaign purposes or to handle such personal chores as cleaning legislators’ homes and fetching their dry cleaning.

The existence of the probe has been wrapped in deep secrecy, but enough is now coming out that some on the Hill worry it could balloon into a crisis as far-reaching as the House banking scandal in the early 1990s. Then, inquiries revealed that most of the 435 representatives had overdrawn their in-house banking accounts without penalty. Outrage over the revelations contributed to a GOP sweep of the House in 1994.

Some critics say quietly that the practice of using staffers or other official resources for campaign and personal purposes may be nearly as widespread as the banking violations.

Never mind that a food crisis is spreading across the planet. Instead of slashing more agriculture subsidies to the well-to-do, lawmakers pounding together a compromise $300 billion farm bill have decided that now is the time to gut a highly regarded, solidly successful program that provides hundreds of thousands of tons of food to school children in many of the poorest countries around the world.

While the House bill put $780 million into the Dole-McGovern International Food for Education program, House and Senate negotiators have sliced it to just $60 million.

In an unexpected benefit, the war in Iraq is providing the Smithsonian Institution with a wealth of knowledge about the birds of that country. The U.S. Air Force is shipping dozens of whole carcasses of birds to the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Laboratory as part of the service’s never-ending quest to keep our feathered friends from colliding with its aircraft. At the Balad Air Base in Iraq alone, 124 “bird strikes” have been recorded between October 2006 and October 2007.

Such strikes cost about $35 million a year in repairs and ruined engines (not to mention the lives of the birds), so the service is intent on figuring out ways to avoid such unpleasant events. The Smithsonian helps by identifying struck birds and explaining their migratory and nesting habits.

Of the feather lab’s 620,000 bird specimens, only four until now were species from Iraq. Lab scientist Carla Dove said the lab hopes to add feathers from dozens of unusual Iraq species, including white-cheeked bulbuls, Egyptian nightjars, red-wattled plovers and blue-cheeked bee eaters.

So far, more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack-cocaine crimes have had their time behind bars cut as a result of new federal guidelines designed to erase what the U.S. Sentencing Commission has called a disparity between sentences for those caught with crack or powdered forms of the drug.

A commission study found that 3,647 crack cons applied for sentence cuts, and 3,075 got their wish. Of those approved, 9 percent had been sent to prison as violent or repeat offenders.

With summer vacation approaching fast, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is offering up all sorts of spooklike fun for bored kids. On its newly revamped Web site (www.dni.gov) you’ll find links to “intelligence community agency kids’ pages,” including ones created by the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

At the DIA’s site, for example, a child can choose from such skills-building “missions” as “maze collision,” “document sort” and “hangman.” From the ultra-hush-hush NSA, you’ll find colorful animal characters called “CryptoKids,” designed to help cultivate America’s future code-makers and code-breakers.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at)shns.com.)