The coal slurry pipeline bill, now on the floor of the House, is an unusually clear case of a collision between an established industry and an innovator. The established industry--the railroads --has something close to a monopoly on most routes in the profitable business of moving coal. It does not welcome the competition of a new technology, the pipeline. This issue has gone to Congress because it's impossible to build a pipeline very far without having to cross a railroad right-of-way, and the railroads generally refuse to allow it. Pipelines won't be built unless Congress gives them the right of eminent domain.

The railroads' crusade against the bill is rather similar to the crusades that other industries run against foreign imports. It is an attempt to use political power to ward off economic competition. You could call it internal protectionism.

The railroads, observing that slurry pipelines require water, have also denounced them as a threat to agriculture and have managed to recruit some of the farm organizations into their lobbying campaign. But the House Interior Committee, never unmindful of farmers' interests, has stitched careful protection for them into the bill. It says that each state controls the water that a pipeline would draw from it; the state could set conditions on a pipeline's water supply or refuse to provide any water at all if it considered the supply inadequate. That's greater assurance to agriculture than present law gives it. The water issue is merely a diversion.

There are a lot of people in Congress who talk portentously about the need for industrial policy, and there are a lot people outside Congress--including ourselves--who wonder whether industrial policy isn't simply a veil for plain old protectionism. Internal protectionism, railroad-style, is no less dangerous than the conventional sort aimed at foreign competitors. The vote on the slurry pipeline will be an interesting test of the current strength of the protectionist impulse in the House.