This is another in a series of stories tracing the progress of a typical bill through Congress.
Two weeks ago, when the House Rules Committee approved a "closed rule" for the waterway too bill, the legislation was officially ready for debate and a vote on the floor. The next step seemed simple enough: the bill would be placed on a calendar and come up in its turn.
But in Congress, where even routine activities are subject to labyrinthine procedural and political plotting, the scheduling of the waterway bill was not a simple process.
After countless meetings, memos, and telephone calls, and six revisions of next week's "tentative" legislative calender, it was still not clear last night when the bill would come up.
The Department of Transportation and the freight industry lobbyists kept telling the House leadership that the bill, which would require commercial barge lines to pay for their use of federally maintained waterways, marked a major change in federal transportation policy.
But Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and Speaker Thomas P.O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), trying to schedule votes on the Federal Trade Commission legislation, the cargo preference bill, and President Carter's first government reorganization plan, kept pushing the waterway bill to the end of the list.
The scheduling process for each week's votes in the House is a complicated procedure that takes up much of the workday for Craig Raup, a senior staffer in Wright's office, and Gary Hymel, who is O'Neill's righthand man.
The two are subjected to almost constant pressure from members who want a quick vote on this bill, or a delay in scheduling that one.
They like to keep the schedule fluid, but that policy causes problems. Sponsors of major legislation want to know precisely when their bills will be on the floor, so that lobbyists can be alerted and the normal flurry of "Dear Colleague" letters can be dispatched at the proper moment.
Scheduling for the waterway bill began on Sept. 21, the day the Rules Committee passed on the measure. Raup visited the Rules staff to find out how much time to bill would need on the floor.
For two weeks he and Hymel fended off calls from various congressional offices and from the Department of Transportation's lobbyists who were pushing for a quick floor vote.
When O'Neill Wright, and their team of Democratic whips met for their weekly calendar meeting last Thursday morning, the group hit on a complicated plan that would squeeze the bill onto the floor in three different segments.
Formal approval of the Rules Committee's "closed rule" was set for Thursday afternoon. (The rule passed easily, as almost all rules do.)
Debate on the bill was set for next Tuesday. It seemed logical, then to have a vote on Wednesday, but that day had been set aside for O'Neill's pet bill, the House reorganization, so the waterway bill once again gave way.
It was finally decided to schedule a floor vote for next Friday. But Friday is the day the House quits work early (usually at 3:30 p.m.), so that plan could not be called nothing more than tentative.
But in the scheduling business, everything is tentative. So Raup called the House cloakrooms and told them Friday was the day. That information was inserted into the recorded message at the cloakroom's switchboard.