SOUND GOVERNMENT

In Washington, it's not just who you know but what your agency or program is called. The goal is to have a great-sounding, powerful name, acronym or abbreviation, maybe with the letter F, as in FBI, or the Fed, or FDA (but definitely not FERC -- Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- since that rhymes with jerk).

Serious problems arise when a perfectly fine-sounding name contains the seeds of a disastrous acronym. For example, in the 1980s, Congress created a new health care agency and proudly called it the Agency for Health Care Research and Policy.

And then someone spotted a real problem: The new agency would be AH-CRAP. A deft switch in the final version of the bill renamed the new operation the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, or AHCPR, which is pronounced AHK-PER. Cumbersome, but a vast improvement.

Now Congress has fine-tuned AHK-PER, changing it to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, AHRQ, which is pronounced ARK, giving it an uplifting, biblical sound. Granted, the mention of "care" at the beginning had to be camouflaged, lest someone be tempted to

call it AH-CROCK.

Just last month we were reminded of the seriousness of all these initialized names when we received a memo from Rear Adm. Evelyn J. Fields, who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as director of what used to be called the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO).

"On November 7, 1999," she wrote, "our reorganization . . . to the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) took effect. The new name of our organization better reflects our operational mission and formally recognizes our new organizational structure."

But danger lurks in the naming game. "At this early phase in our newly named organization, I am taking the opportunity to let folks know my preference for acronyms rather than waiting and letting random chance be the deciding factor," she wrote. "I would prefer to use M-A-O rather than `mayo' or `omayo' for the short form when discussing our organization and OMAO as the short version in written reference."

Right. And pass the M-A-O.

A SCHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK

The fixation with official names often carries political overtones. When the Republicans took over the House in 1995, for instance, among the first changes they made were in the names of House committees -- the old House Education and Labor Committee, for example, became the House Education and Workforce Committee.

More recently, in the just-approved budget bill, Congress ordered Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala "or any other federal officer or employee" dealing with the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program to "use (1) the term `SCHIP' instead of the term `CHIP'; and (2) the term `State children's health insurance program' instead of the term `children's health insurance program.' "

It's unclear who slipped the new language into the budget bill. What's the reason for dumping CHIP?

When Congress in 1997 approved President Clinton's proposal for the $24 billion block grant program to expand health insurance for low-income children, it provided the states with flexibility in using the money.

One option was simply to expand Medicaid coverage. Or states could set up another program. When states opted to expand Medicaid, the program was called Medicaid/CHIP; when they set up their own plan, it was known as S-CHIP, on the theory that it's a state-designed program.

Some governors and Republican members of Congress didn't like using CHIP, since that was what Clinton had proposed for its name when the program was created. Obvious, perhaps, but in their mind still too much of Clinton and too little of the states. So Congress has mandated the "S" before CHIP to emphasize the state role.

HHS officials say everyone has used "CHIP" without trouble for the last two years and changing it now "makes it sound like we've got a speech impediment or slurring our words," as one official put it.

HHS lawyers are looking into whether forcing the S onto people is a violation of the First Amendment. But, the official said, "we probably will comply."

So HHS will have to spend some money to change the stationery and any of the old references to the program. Unclear what the penalties would be if Shalala slips up -- or even attempts to defy the will of

Congress and the states -- and leaves out the critical "S." Best keep the old impeachment machinery well-oiled.

Tips and comments for Al Kamen's column are welcomed at: In the Loop, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at Loop@washpost.com. Please include home and work phone numbers.