So how've you been?" asked the man with the scissors as I hopped up into the chair. "Your ship come in yet?"

"My ship hasn't even left the dock," I replied. "In fact, I don't think they've even built the ship. In fact, I don't think they've even built the dock."

"Poor baby hasn't been saving a penny. Poor baby's been spending it all on those three-martini lunches," said the snipper as he fastened the sheet around my neck.

"Hey, what do I look like, a lobbyist?" I replied as he began attacking my sideburns. "I mean, nobody who plans to do any thinking after 2 p.m. has three martinis at lunch. He doesn't have one martini at lunch. If I have a glass of wine before 5 p.m., it's an occasion."

"All right, all right, take it easy," said the snipper. "It's just that I get a lot of guys from the Hill in here, and they say they've never heard anything like the moaning that starts whenever somebody tries to eliminate the tax deduction for business meals and business drinks."

"That's an awful lot of misplaced moaning," I said. "Do you have any idea how many business-related expenses are deductible? Golf is. Souvenir pens are. A George Bush wind-up toy delivered to your door on Christmas Eve is. Just about anything is. If you change the three-martini lunch rules, you won't be putting every deduction out of reach. You'll be putting one deduction out of reach."

"Yeah, but it's the most popular deduction, isn't it?" pointed out the snipper as he took aim at a clump of gray on the back of my neck. "Put it this way: You see a lot more people lined up to buy lunch at Mel Krupin's than you see lined up to buy souvenir pens."

"True enough," I admitted. "But do you really think lunch would go out of style in this town if it weren't deductible? I greatly, greatly doubt it."

"It might become a whole lot less fun," the snipper observed. "Especially if they pass that bill that would modify the three-martini deduction, instead of doing away with it completely. You know the bill -- the one where you could deduct only $25 per lunch, and everything beyond that is on you. Can you imagine what a riot that would be?"

"It would redefine restaurant life in Washington," I predicted shamelessly. "Instead of a sommelier at Krupin's, there'd be a guy walking around with a calculator. He'd stop at your table and say, 'Excuse me, Mr. Powerlunch, but if I serve the chocolate mousse you ordered, you will exceed your limit. May I suggest ice cream instead?' "

"And imagine a guy taking a woman out for lunch -- a guy who plans to claim it later as a business expense," said the snipper. "Our hero's trying to impress the lady, so he says, 'Have whatever you like, my dear.' So she goes ahead and orders a margarita, soup, salad and sirloin steak. And when the waiter turns toward him, our hero clears his throat and says, 'Me? Oh, I'll have a club sandwich.' Only way to stay below the magic $25 watermark."

"It'll never happen," I predicted as the snipper went after the top of my head with thinning shears. "Mark my words: Never. Maybe we cleaned up campaign financing in this town. Maybe we passed Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. But no one on the Hill has enough political courage to put lunches on the other side of the line."

"Oh, yeah?" replied the snipper as he reached for the can of talcum powder. "You know how it goes up there. It's the way it went last fall, when Rostenkowski pulled the rabbit out of the hat at the last second. They consider a million changes in the tax law all at once. It gets near the end of a session. They work four days and nights, solid. They send out for pizza. They're determined to get it done. And just when everybody's totally exhausted and totally sick of the whole thing, somebody sneaks one itsy-bitsy three-martini lunch clause in there."

"Entirely possible," I said, "except for one thing."

"And that is?"

"And that is that the biggest users of the three-martini deduction are the members of the House and Senate."

"I hadn't thought of that," said the snipper as he held the mirror behind me so I could admire my shorn self.

"Well, they've thought of it," I assured him. "It's their favorite method of indulging political pals. All year long, they've got constituents coming to town who need to be wined and dined. Sure, they could take Mr. Constituent to the Senate Dining Room. But you do get a little sick of bean soup. Besides, Mr. Constituent has heard that sometimes Elizabeth Taylor or Jackie Onassis shows up at Mel's. So he drops a subtle hint . . . "

"Here's my subtle hint," said the snipper as he dropped the chair to earth level.

"Thanks, as usual," I said.

"My pleasure," he said.

"Just one more thing," I said. "I thought you ought to know that the Hill is about to take a look at something else. Tax-deductible haircuts."

"Hey, man," said the snipper, "it's your audit, not mine."