READING the Congressional Record is like panning for gold in a low-grade deposit: most of the time it's sheer drudgery, but occasionally you come across something. This one turned up in the debate about a bill establishing a federal fund to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites. It illustrates a cardinal rule of legislative logrolling (especially popular around election time): if the federal government is going to be doing anything that results in doling out dollars, every state should get a piece of the action, regardless of the purpose for which the money is intended.

With literally thousands of abandoned chemical dump sites already on the Environmental Protection Agency's list, and new ones being discovered daily, members of Congress designing the cleanup fund were aware that there would not be enough money or resources in the foreseeble future to clean up all the potentially dangerous sites. So they sensibly directed the EPA to establish a "national priority" list, to be revised annually, based on a "determination of the relative danger to public health and the environment" of the known sites. The 100 abandoned dumps determined to pose the greatest danger are to be designated "top priority sites," and to receive first attention and first crack at the available funds. So far, so good.

Then the House, almost reflexively, adopted an amendment that upends this reasonable approach. "To the extent practicable," it reads, EPA shall include in the list of 100 most dangerous sites -- what else? -- "at least one site in each state." The pure politics language was modified in the ensuing discussion that will have legal standing as part of the bill's legislative history. Rep. James Cleveland (R-N.H.), the amendment's sponsor, explained that he had accepted the phrase "to the extent possible" after discussions with the bill's managers "with this understanding -- when a State identifies a priority problem it will receive at least one designation on the national priority -- it has a priority. Since virtually every state has at least one abandoned dump, it is unlikely that very many states wil exempt themselves from a spot in the top 100.

In case anyone is wondering about the philosophical roots from which such legislation springs, Rep. Cleveland has explained: "Mr. Chairman, I would just like to say that this amendment springs from experiences in my Committee on Public Works and Transportation." We never doubted it for a minute.