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Congress Pigs Out Before Its Picnic Season

It was late on the night of July 25, and bone-weary House and Senate negotiators were struggling to finish a deal on long-delayed energy legislation. That's when Representative Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), reading from a piece of paper, offered an amendment to pay for research on something called "cold cracking." Puzzled lawmakers had never heard of the process, which involves irradiating oil to break it into gasoline and other products. "Is this a study or a program?" asked Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a critic of the bill, according to a transcript of the meeting. Hall's reply: "When I read it to you, I gave you almost all the information I had."

In the end, Hall's $250,000 study became a tiny part of the massive 1,500-plus-page energy bill. So went this year's mad dash toward summer vacation on Capitol Hill. "It's kind of like that Eric Clapton song," says Jeff Duncan, Markey's legislative director. "After midnight, we're going to let it all hang out."

For five steamy late-July days, members of Congress were engrossed in all-night horse-trading, wee-hour floor votes, and wine-fueled bull sessions while waiting for drafters to finish three major measures. The result of the organized chaos was the new Central American Free Trade Agreement sought by the Administration and business, an energy bill chockablock with industry incentives, and a six-year, $286.5 billion highway bill.

The nocturnal confusion let some lawmakers have it both ways. Representative Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) insists he voted against CAFTA -- but the vote didn't register. North Carolina Dems suggested that Taylor's blame-the-voting-machine story was cover for his attempt to please GOP leaders without casting a pro-CAFTA vote that would anger textile workers in his district.

Pork-barrel politics is nothing new, and late-night sessions are as old as the Republic. But the lard has grown to unprecedented proportions: The nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste says the number of projects has risen 873% since the GOP captured the House in 1994. And with late July's crush, leaders could hold votes on one bill over the heads of members eyeballing goodies in another. "It's all calculated," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman. "You amass so many chits that you overwhelm the resistance."

Road to Riches

By holding off the popular highway bill until members had voted on CAFTA, Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) and House leaders had a big stick to threaten pet projects and punish mavericks. "There's no deal like the highway bill," says Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's pure pork. It's a dollar sign."

Representative Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) will see a heap of those dollar signs. Davis, a likely "no" on CAFTA, missed the July 27 vote. Her explanation: She couldn't make it back from the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia in time for the 11 p.m. vote. But on July 29 she issued press releases taking credit for nearly $10 million in highway projects for her district.

Davis wasn't the only winner. Among the non-transportation projects: a $41 million reduction over 10 years on a fishing equipment excise tax; an $8 million excise tax exemption for small gunmakers; and a $188 million income tax credit for distilled-spirits wholesalers. Perhaps bleary lawmakers were already trying to focus on how to spend their summer vacation: fishing, shooting, and drinking.

In politics, it's better to win than lose. But Republicans can't be too pleased at the narrow margin of victory of their candidate, Jean Schmidt, in the Aug. 2 special election to replace former Ohio Representative Rob Portman, who's now U.S. Trade Representative. Schmidt garnered just 52% of the vote in a conservative district where President Bush won 64% and Portman took 72% in 2004. Democrat Paul Hackett, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran, scored points with his tough criticism of Bush's war strategy and GOP ethical shortcomings. He also test-marketed a populist Democratic economic message that could become ubiquitous in the 2006 midterm elections. As Hackett surged in the campaign's final weeks, the national GOP pumped in more than $300,000. That was enough to eke out victory -- but Republicans fell far short of their threat to "bury" Hackett.

Lawrence B. Lindsey may be back in the running to take over the Federal Reserve when Alan Greenspan retires early next year. That's the buzz going around Washington as the Bush Administration steps up its search for Greenspan's replacement. Lindsey, 51, was sacked by President Bush as head of the National Economic Council in late 2002. But many Administration insiders think Lindsey, an architect of Bush's tax cuts, got a raw deal. Now an economic consultant, Lindsey served as a Fed governor from 1991 to 1997. His nomination would surely raise the hackles of many Democrats who consider him an ideologue.

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