When the framers of the Constitution set out to design our system of representative democracy, they must have had something like H. R. 4339 in mind.

H. R. 4339, the "Transportation Users Equity Act," is the House of Representatives' version of S. 790, the controversial Senate proposal to require barge lines to pay tolls for their use of federally built and maintained waterways.

The House bill was introduced early this spring by Berkley Bedell, a gentle soul from Sprit Lake, Iowa, who represents the northwest corner of his state in Congress. But it could not be called Bedell's own brainchild.

Rather the legislation was the product of Bedell's constituents, who complained to the Democrataic Congressman at various town meetings that private barge lines were receiving, for free, billions of dollars worth of public support. In Monona County, in Osceola, in Winnebago the subject came up, and the people asked him to do something about it.

Unfortunately for Bedell, the barge toll idea is considerably less popular in the House Public Works Committee, to which H. R. 4339 has been referred. Committee members say Bedell's bill is unlikely even to be scheduled for hearings, much less receive a favorable vote, in Public Works.

Therein lies the rub for advocates of the waterway toll, who have watched with growing optimism all spring as the Senate toll legislation, S.790, has gradually picked up support as it moves toward a final floor vote.

S.790, too, seemed a nearly hopeless cause when Sen. Pete Domencici (R-N.M.) introduced it in February, but deft parliamentary maneuvering by Domenici and stron gsupport from the Carter administration have given the bill at least a 50-50 shot at passage, according to preliminary head counts by lobbyists on both sides of the issue.

In the House, the legislation faces much longer odds. Bedell, a sort of lamb among lions in Congress, is just not the type to pressure a bill past, hostile committee leaders. "I don't usually call the chairman or cajole people or things like that," he says.

Yet the quiet congressman, who looks and talks like a prairie Mr. Peepers, does have a way of getting things done.

In Spirit Lake High School during the depression, Bedell used to braid dog's hair around old fish hooks and sell the resulting trout flies to make spending money. He built that pastime into a fishing tackle concern with 800 employees and $20 million in annual sales.

With similar industry, Bedell set out in 1971 to get to Congress, and ran almost full-time for three years to unseat Republican Wiley Mayne. The next question was what to do in COngress once he'd arrived there.

For answers, Bedell established a regular circuit of "open door meetings," 44 of them each year, in which his rural constituents debate and vote on issues they want Bedell to get involved in.

Most of the farmers in Bedell's corner of Iowa ship their grain to market by rail. They had long paid higher freight rates than eastern Iowans, who ship by barge on the Mississppi. Waterway rates were lower because the barge lines paid nothing for construction and maintenance of their rights of way.

"I never knew much about this," Bedell said. "But at these meetings people kept saying it wasn't fair. The railroads had to pay for their track bed; truckers paid into a fund for highways. Why should the barges go free?"

This spring Bedell brought that message back to his legislative assistant, Bill Endicott, and the two decided to put in a bill. But neither knew much about the barge business, and neither was particularly dept at writing legislation, either.

So Endicott took the matter to Ward Hussey.

Hussey, a cheery veteran of 30 years' service in the Office of the Legislative Counsel, is the House's chief bill writer. His raison d'etre is to help members like Bedell put their ideas into legalese, and for Hussey it is a labor of love.

Beneath an office bulletin board that features a "statute of the month," Hussey talks happily to anyone who will listen about the salad days when he was drafting the Marshall Plan and the Internal Revenue Code of 1954.

For Hussey and his staff, a little thing like a waterway toll bill was a piece of cake. They borrowed some language from Domencici's bill, threw in some boiler plate conditions and exemptions, and ground out H.R. 4339 in a few days.

With the draft of a bill in hand Endicott prepared a "Dear Colleague" letter explaining the concept and asking for co-sponsors. Ten signed on (only one from the Public Works Committee, however), and Bedell dropped his bill in the hopper.

But there it stopped. With powerful opposition on the Public Works Committee, H.R. 4339 seems to be headed only for oblivion.

And that poses a frustrating problem for Domenici, who has steered his own toll bill so artfully through the Senate. All his efforts would be futile if the idea came to a dead halt in the House.

Consequently, even before he has won in the Senate, Pete Domenici has been plotting how to get S. 790 through the other half of Congress.

NEXT: Birth of a Strategy