"Once an agency begins operation in the federal government, it lasts forever."

-- Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.)

It's been a bizarre couple of weeks for Gail McDonald.

As chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, McDonald's job has been to beat back bloodthirsty budget cutters in Congress who have tried for years (but failed) to put the ICC out of business.

Well, her worst nightmare (and she says she does have nightmares) came true June 16, when the House managed to take a Jack Kevorkian- like vote to put the government's oldest regulatory agency (born circa 1887) out of existence. Anything worth keeping would be transferred to the Department of Transportation.

The ICC was created to regulate railroad issues, then later assumed responsibility for trucks and buses. All three have been largely deregulated.

As Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) said during some rather uninformed debate before the vote: "I do think the time has come to ice the ICC."

The Senate feels only marginally differently, though it tread more lightly: It voted to cut the ICC's funds and staff by a third, meaning its trucking-related duties most likely would disappear.

McDonald admits the last few weeks have been worse than what she usually puts up with. She's gotten used to legislators cutting her short after five minutes. She's used to having the agency get beat up in congressional hearings and in the press.

But, if things don't go well when members from the House and Senate meet to settle their differences, McDonald will be remembered as the last chairman of the ICC, who had to pink-slip about 600 employees.

"It's a horrifying thought," she said.

She wakes at 3 a.m. and watches CNN news. She left an industry dinner the night of the House vote, explaining she wasn't "terribly hungry." She has had to gather employees who work for the ICC and encourage them to "keep working hard and not panic."

Said Robert Blanchard, vice president and general counsel of the Association of Transportation Practitioners: "This is shooting them in the streets."

Predictably, a blizzard of supporters in the rail and trucking industries have done a Desert Storm-like mobilization to lobby the Senate. As the president of the American Movers Conference said in a legislative alert, "There is not time to write." Call or fax, he urged.

(The General Accounting Office supports keeping the agency, as does the administration, with further streamlining.)

The railroads and truckers, as well as McDonald and her top operatives, were caught totally unaware by the House vote because they had been lulled into complacency by what they read as a warm reception at an oversight hearing before the vote.

To make things a bit more surreal, only a day before the House vote, Linda Morgan, a new commissioner, was sworn in. Another new commissioner, Gus Owen, awaits confirmation.

This might be a bit like picking pallbearers, but the ICC isn't dead yet. Even if it passes on, McDonald predicts that because the ICC has statutory duties it will be "reinvented" down the road. "And that would be stupid," she said.

NOT SO FAST.

The Clinton administration thought it could save some pennies when it targeted a very small program at the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In its 1995 budget, it zapped the odometer fraud program, which costs all of $600,000 a year. That's the cost of salaries for the eight people who do odometer sleuthing around the country. They were involved in collecting about $7 million worth of fines since 1985.

The administration lamely suggested that the Justice Department or the FBI or the DOT inspector general keep an eye on the odometer problem, which stems from the demand for "low mileage" used cars. The administration said the program just didn't fit in with its "mission."

But it didn't take long for Congress to turn back the clock on the request.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) shot off a letter to DOT Secretary Federico Pena, saying it was NHTSA's obligation to carry out the law. The Senate voted $610,000 to keep the program going. The House is expected to concur.

Truce.

A spokesperson for NHTSA said, "We'll accede to the wishes of Congress and won't fight it."

CABLE REGULATION at work: Cable TV Montgomery, owned by Southwestern Bell Corp., has been sending out refund checks to subscribers. That would be good news, except that some customers are getting whopping $1.09 refunds. That's what's left after the company deducts a $14.73 charge for a converter box and adds in a few pennies for interest.

Oh, by the way: Before regulation, there was merely a $25 deposit for the box. Now, there's a monthly charge. So, in this customer's case, the charge for preferred service dropped to $24.33 a month from $26.45, but when you add in $1.56 for the converter, you save a grand total of 56 cents a month. These days, that won't even buy you a cup of latte.