If you can picture a card shark trying to tell Hoyle how to cut the deck, you will understand the audacity of what a little House subcommittee is trying to do to Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.).
As most everyone knows, the Louisiana senator is to legislative wheeling and dealing what Hoyle was to the pasteboards -- each in his own way wrote the book.
Back in 1976, by virtue of his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, Long got Congress to go along with a special slice of federal revenue sharing for the sheriffs of his home state.
Now, as the legislation is up for renewal, a House subcommittee on intergovernmental relations has decreed an end to special treatment for Louisiana sheriffs.
Their special standing in the revenue sharing program would mean about $20.5 million during this fiscal year for the sheriffs in the state's 64 parishes (counties).
That is not red beans and rice. For the sheriffs, who also function as parish police, it is meat and potatoes -- operating money which is enough to get riled about, once they learn what the House is up to.
But at the subcommittee and down at the Department of the Treasury, which makes the payments, they're chuckling a bit about how the panel has dared to take on the persusasive benefactor of Louisiana.
"It's pretty simple," said a Treasury man. "The subcommittee knew Russell Long would hit the roof when he got wind of this. Now they'll have something to trade with him when the bill goes to conference."
The bill is expected to reach the next step in its march toward conference today, when the House Government Operations Committee meets to mark up the legislation.
Louisiana has no representation on the committee, so the smart players are betting that the sheriffs will lose another round today.
As of yesterday, Long had not yet attached himself to the roof, but a spokesman at the Finance Committee said a close eye is being kept on the bill's progress through the House. Enough said.
The House subcommittee version would substantially modify the revenue sharing program, which expires Oct. 1. The major change would remove states from the program, limiting payments to units of local government; the bill also would tighten payment procedures. Republicans intend to move today to put the states back into the bill.
In any case, the new House vision of revenue sharing excludes the Louisiana sheriffs. Under the 1976 amendments, Long's magic touch allowed the sheriffs to claim 15 percent of the state and local shares.
As it turned out, the sheriffs of the Bayou State became the only non-general-purpose units of government in the entire country to qualify for revenue sharing.
"When this went to conference between the House and Senate back then," said a congressional staffer with a long memory, "the senator wanted the provision and the House got into a mellow mood and said, 'What the hell, why not?'"
But this time around, it's a new ball game and the revenue sharing program is being revamped substantially.
"The subcommittee vote to remove the sheriffs was unanimous," a staff aide said. "We think the full committee will go along with that, but realistically, we also think Sen. Long will have something to say about it."
The original justification for allowing the sheriffs to tap into revenue sharing was rooted in the byzantine politics sometimes practiced by Louisiana officials at the local level.
The elected sheriffs, one source explained, feared that the elected parish governing bodies would not give them a split of the revenue sharing payments. Sen. Long knew the situation well enough to take the sheriffs' side of the argument.
But, the argument goes, the sheriffs subsequently came upon other ways of raising revenue in their parishes, through taxing powers they have been granted by the state legislature.
No matter. Just remember: They don't play by Hoyle in the U.S. Congress.