Rep. Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson (D-Calif.), one of those tall political timbers who was chopped off at the roots on Nov. 4, had a modest souvenir on his mind the other day.
As a lame duck who won't be here next year to chair the House Public Works Committee, Johnson was asking his pals for one last favor: a $12 million federal courthouse for Redding, Calif., in his district.
No matter that its $200-per-square-foot cost is about twice the usual federal building cost. No matter that the Senate hadn't examined it or held hearings, or that General Services Administration executives waited until their boss, who didn't like it, was out of town before they gazetted it to Capitol Hill.
And no matter that Johnson, while not even suggesting a trade, didn't raise the issue until he was closeted with senators seeking agreement on a major bill that would stop such building practices at GSA.
Johnson's effort to help his home district was of a piece with a spirit pervading this post-election session of the 96th Congress: Get it now or forget it.
Like the closing days of most congresses, it is almost as though the respledent Capitol has become a huge railroad station. The last gravy train is leaving and there's a rush to catch it.
This convocation of lame ducks is being billed as a sort of do-nothing, clean-up-loose-ends exercise before Republicans take charge of the Senate in January and flex more new muscle in the House.
But in fact, since returning Nov. 12 the House and Senate have been running at full tilt, churning out bill after bill and, along the way, feathering the nests of their beloved lame ducks.
Bizz Johnson's courthouse was just a nibble. A group of oil companies, in contrast, got a billion-dollar loaf in one committee. Tax breaks were being handed out by the dozen in another, yet a child-health program couldn't glean a crumb.
A last hurrah for Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. Robert Duncan (D-Ore.), departing the Appropriations committees, meant big bucks for their states.Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), on his way out as a chairman, got one last favor for a friend.
Clickety-click, clickety-click go the steel wheels on steel rails. By Thursday, the train was barreling down the tracks at the Senate Finance Committee, where they were considering a stack of "noncontroversial, miscellaneous" tax bills, as the lame duck chairman, Russell B. Long (D-La.), likes to describe these legislative bonbons.
There were enough of them, suffice it to say, that a listing required three full typewritten pages and a portion of a fourth. One by one, the items were explained by their proponents and more often than not given a green light to go to the floor for final passage.
On one of them, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) was expounding at length about how wrong it would be to bail out a California utility, as the pending amendment would have done.
Long listened intently. Eyes glazed. Then he said quizzically, "What do you want?" It was a near perfect riposte. California's senators wanted the amendment and it was being pushed by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), a ranking figure on the committee. Danforth understood.
Long had had enough. He turned over the chair to Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), a lame duck who lost in an upset. Long cigar jutting from the center of his mouth, he listened to Packwood plead the next one -- a tax break for the YMCA in little, depressed Tillamook, Ore. (Population: 3,968).
Due to what Packwood said was a "mistake" in their approach, YMCA officials inadvertently incurred a $30,000 tax liability in a land-development transaction. No question about it, he conceded, "It is special-interest legislation." And yes, he said, the Treasury Department opposes it on that ground.
Harumphh, murmured Talmadge, calling for a vote. Harumphh, said the committee members collectively, voting unanimously for the Tillamook Y.
"If there's any objections to these amendments," Talmadge explained, "the chairman has said he will withdraw them from the floor to avoid killing the primary bill. We just want the noncontroversial items."
Teddy Kennedy will be in the Senate next year, but he's the lame duck chairman of the Judiciary Committee. No more big staff, no more power of the gavel next year, no more klieg-light hearings.
The changing of the political guard at the White House and in the Senate also means that 17 of Jimmy Carter's nominations for federal judgeships are dead. They're stymied in the committee by Republicans who intend to name their own people to those spots.
But the committee's GOP minority did Chairman Teddy one last favor. They approved the nomination of Stephen Breyer of Massachusetts to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Judicial Circuit.
After the election, Carter sent the nomination to the Senate, the committee held a quick confirmation hearing and approved it by a telephone vote in near-record time last Monday. There was no quarrel over Breyer's qualifications -- Democrats and Republicans agreed he was superbly able.
They had cause to know. Until recently, Stephen Breyer of Massachusetts was Kennedy's No. 1 assistant as chief counsel of . . . the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (d-Ark.), not a lame duck and in no mood to ladle out gravy, was fighting mad the other morning. Without a hearing or any real debate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was putting the wrapper on a multibillion-dollar gift for some oil companies.
Bumpers argued mightily, but the committee went ahead and approved a House-passed bill that would allow a consortium of independent oil firms to reclaim rights to lucrative offshore leases in the Santa Barbara Channel off California.
By one committee estimate, the two federal leases could be worth $29 billion -- correct, billion -- for the oil and gas they contain. By another, they might be worth $6.4 billion. By still another, only $2.9 billion.
Whatever the amount, it involves large and easy profit for the Pauley Petroleum group, nine independent companies trying to win from Congress what they couldn't win in court.
They had obtained two federal leases in the channel in 1968 and drilled eight dry holes in the first year. Then a nearby Union Oil Co. well blew out, heavily polluting the channel, and the Department of the Interior suspended all drilling work until safety could be assured.
The Pauley firms, meanwhile, could not meet new environmental safeguards and let their work lapse. They sued the government for $324 million in damages -- that is, lost profits. Meanwhile their leases, like all unexploited leases, expired after five years of inactivity and reverted to the Interior Department.
The U.S. Court of Claims rejected Pauley's claims in 1979 and the Supreme Court refused a review. The group then enlisted a battery of high-powered lawyers and sought out friendly legislators.
Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Calif.) pushed a bill to reinstate the leases through the House, over Interior's objections. Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), going to bat for Los Angeles-based Pauley, tried to move the bill in the Senate but got nowhere.
Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) did his part. He tried to get an immediate Senate floor vote on the House bill but was thwarted by Energy Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who insisted it go to his committee. Cranston buttonholed colleagues to win support for the bill, as did Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), representing several Pauley group companies from Colorado.
Last week, with at least eight company lobbyists, including former representative Teno Roncalio (D-Wyo.), hovering in the room, the time was right. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) asked the committee to take up the bill, even though it had had no hearing.
Bumpers argued against it, but he was overwhelmed. Without a roll call, the committee adopted the Pauley bailout as part of a package of other "noncontroversial" bills.
Bumpers immediately notified Senate leaders he will oppose the bill's consideration on the floor and filibuster the lame duck to death if necessary. Pauley's goose may be cooked.
They may want to help poor, ailing oil companies, but it's another story when it comes to poor, ailing kids. Therein lies another vignette of the lame duck 96th Congress -- how an outside organization, trying to climb aboard that last train, is pushed back across the tracks.
This one involves the much-debated Child Health Assessment Act of 1979 (CHAP), a House-passed bill to give about 13 million children and adolescents on Medicaid regular health checkups and treatment. It would cost $22 million in its first year, but rise to $1 billion -- that is, perhaps 1/29th the value of Pauley's two leases -- in its fifth year.
CHAP's chief supporters are the Children's Defense Fund and a coalition of major labor, religious, medical, civil rights and urban groups. Its chief opponents, it turns out, are the four Republican senators who have put "holds" on the bill -- meaning that passage is virtually impossible.
With a cost-cutting GOP administration taking over, pledging to closely review all social programs of the ilk of CHAP, Sens. William Armstrong (Colo.), Henry Bellmon (Okla.), Pete Domenici (N.M.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) don't want the bill to be considered.
"The holds on that bill are tenacious," said an aide to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), CHAP's best friend and supporter in the Senate. "We've made every effort to remove those holds, but to no avail . . . . We were even willing to cut the authorizing amounts to the bare bones."
The ensuing disappointment has embittered dear old friends. Children's Defense Fund officials quietly denounce Ribicoff. The senator, retiring this year, was offended and hurt when a group of CHAP proponents cornered him in a hallway and hurled epithets at him and his wife.
Senate aides reported that Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who had been sympathetic to CHAP, was furious after defense fund officials misled him by setting up a meeting between him and Urban League President Vernon Jordan. Instead of Jordan, other CHAP defenders showed up.
"We understand their frustration," said one of Ribicoff's men, "but you can't put a gun to a senator's head."
Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), silver-haired and handy with a word, said it nicely when House and Senate conferees met last week to hammer out a 1981 appropriations bill for Interior Department and related-agency operations: "Why have a lame-duck session if you don't help the lame ducks."
Bob Duncan of Oregon has been a lame duck longer than most. He was defeated in a spring primary, which gave him time, you might say, to get his fiscal ducks in a row.
Bing, he went in the conference. The Senate agreed to put $2 million more on a program for Oregon-California timber land programs. Bang, he went again, and the Senate gave him a $25 million concession for payment of private lands taken with creation of the Redwoods National Park. Pow, he went, getting another $29.7 million included for timber cutting in the national forests.
That was enough for the benevolent brethren. They rebuffed his effort to put $47 million back in the bill for road development in the forests.
An assistant to Birch Bayh of Indiana, also a lame duck, was contemplating the power of incumbency. "In five minutes, he walks in there and gets what he asks for. The people of Indiana aren't going to have that anymore."
Bayh persuaded the conferees to add $11 million to their bill to keep a demonstration project going in his home state. The Inland Steel Corp. is trying to develop a safer, cleaner, less expensive type of coke for steel production in a joint private-federal venture.
Conferees accepted some special language Bayh wanted to clarify the status of the Indiana Dunes park on Lake Michigan and changed the loan formula for alcohol-fuel projects, which are dear to Bayh's heart.
Some ducks can, some ducks can't. Sen. John Durkin (D-N.H.), defeated on Nov. 4, tried his darnedest to win approval of $693,000 for a study to create natural gas from garbage in Manchester, N.H. "The conferees wouldn't go along. "It was an innovative idea," one of Durkin's assistants said, "and it was very important to him. Too bad. It's one of the last chances he'll have to help his state."
Sometimes, when the train really gets rolling, they hardly have to say anything. When the Public Works conferees met to try to work out an agreement on the building-reform bill, aimed at curbing the nearly $1-billion-a-year federal rent expense, another lame duck of few words spoke.
Rep. William H. Harsha (R-Ohio), retiring voluntarily, didn't have to say much to get his message across. He passed out a little sheet of paper with a "compromise" to make his Republican friend, Washington lawyer Ralph Becker, an honorary trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The catbird's unspoken message was that if the senators didn't go along with the gesture (they had been objecting to it for months) on another bill, then the House just wouldn't talk turkey on building reform.
Catbirds, ducks and turkeys. Similar birds, same language.