The House yesterday passed, 303 to 33, a bill tactfully characterized by the Democratic leadership as "maritime regulation reform," and in the process may have kicked off what is always the spiciest part of every Congress:
The biennial effort to whip through special-interest bills under cover of the rush toward adjournment.
The maritime bill would relax price-fixing rules for shipping cartels. In tactics typical of an end of session, debate was limited to 40 minutes under a suspension of the rules and was held on the Monday before one of the heaviest primary days of the year. Nor were amendments allowed, so that several members said they had been "gagged."
Maritime spokesmen, looking ahead to the Senate, hailed passage as "positive" and "long overdue."
The maritime industry is hardly the only one on the prowl. The budget battle has been the main show in Congress this year, as it was last. But this year there also were some sideshows.
* The United Auto Workers is pressing for passage of a "domestic content" bill that would require more of the cars sold here to be made here, saving its members' jobs.
* The pesticide industry wants the pesticide control law relaxed, and western users of federal water want the bill that governs them relaxed as well.
* The coal industry is at work on behalf of a slurry pipeline bill that would free it from its dependence on railroads.
* The American Medical Association also wants to be freed -- from regulation by the Federal Trade Commission.
* The beer industry is lined up behind a bill, opposed by consumer groups, that -- like the maritime bill passed yesterday -- would allow restraints of trade by letting brewers grant wholesalers exclusive selling rights in certain territories.
But as happens every year, not all the special-interest groups prevail. Consumer groups also had dug in against a bill, favored by the drug industry, to extend the 17-year life of drug patents.
That, too, came up in the House yesterday under a suspension of the rules requiring a two-thirds' vote for passage.
The drug bill missed by five votes, "winning" by only 250 to 132. The consumer groups, who said the bill would increase drug costs, had on their side generic drug companies who gain access to new discoveries after patents expire.
"There's a lot of electoral nervousness around here," said Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "The word is, when in doubt, vote no, [and] there is as much pressure to keep these bills off the calendar as to put them on."
However, should the voters protest over something, there is always the excuse that, in the rush, one did not really know what was going on. Take Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), during the debate over the shipping bill, which had passed through his committee.
After praising the legislation as a "careful balancing" of the interests of shippers and consumers, and urging his colleagues to vote for it, Rodino rose minutes later to confess that he had just learned that the bill would cut the Justice Department out of enforcing antitrust laws against the shippers.
"Unfortunately, this matter was not brought to my attention until a few minutes ago," he apologized, adding that, "While we are not in a position to correct this problem now, I will do what I can to correct this problem in any conference we may have with the Senate."
The shipping bill, backed by the maritime unions and companies that include such giants as LTV, R. J. Reynolds and Holiday Inns, also would eliminate criminal penalties and triple damages for antitrust violations, and would remove a requirement that the carriers prove they are acting in the public interest by forming cartels.
The entire Maryland and Virginia delegations voted for the shipping bill, except for two members who did not vote, Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) and M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.).
The drug patent bill would lengthen a company's patent on a new discovery to compensate for the time required to meet government safety rules, an average of seven years, drug companies say.
The Maryland delegation voted against the bill, except for Byron, who did not vote, and Republican Marjorie S. Holt, who voted yes. The Virginia delegation voted for the bill, except Butler, who did not vote.