Remember when you were sitting on the beach last summer reading back issues of the Congressional Record and getting furious because the ink on your sweaty hands was putting fingerprints on your baby daughter when you picked her up?

Well, help is nearly at hand.

On June 29, the House Government Operations Committee passed its version of the Vegetable Ink Printing Act, opening the way for the Government Printing Office to extend the use of soybean ink to everything it publishes. Soybean ink, as we all know, doesn't rub off as much as your garden-variety, sooty (yuk), petroleum-based ink.

Public Printer Michael DiMario (who runs the GPO) told the committee that three new GPO printing presses will be able to use soybean ink, thus enabling the Congressional Record to go vegetable along with its even more titillating cousin, the Federal Register.

With luck, thousands of bureaucratic beach-goers this year will be able to read their favorite periodicals and sweat with clean hands. Once again the republic can rest easy.

The Vegetable Ink Printing Act is your basic feel-good bill. It costs almost nothing (not quite, but close), the bureaucracy likes it (DiMario can go soybean or petroleum) and it's great for the environment (it's easier to wash off when you recycle the paper, and it won't pull an Exxon Valdez on you).

Most of all, of course, it sells soybeans, which is great for 400,000 growers who tout their product in everything from tofu to cattle feed. The American Soybean Association even opened a National Soy Ink Information Center last year in anticipation of great things to come.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Printing Act's major Senate sponsors included Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), from states with big money in vegetable oil.

In the House, Appropriations Committee agriculture boss Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) led the way, with an assist from Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.), who is from Modesto, which, to be immodesto, is one of the richest agricultural communities on Earth.

The oil-based ink industry didn't have anyone at the committee's hearing in late May, so you can imagine how it went. Condit ran the proceedings, with testimony from Wellstone, Durbin, the American Soybean Association and Soy Ink Information.


DiMario said the GPO used 44.1 tons of ink to print the Record and the Register last year, which may sound like a lot, except that ink represents only 0.01 percent of total GPO printing costs, which are mostly newsprint.

Given that Congress is in love with the sound of its own voice and has a tendency to write bulkier and bulkier laws, both newsprint and ink are growth industries, but ink will likely remain a mere teardrop in the ocean of GPO's $533 million per year printing bill.

"We don't have any problems with the legislation," DiMario assistant Andy Sherman said. "Several agencies are already ordering soy-based ink." These include the Internal Revenue Service, he said, which is now mailing environmentally friendly 1040s.

Preservation of documents is not a problem, DiMario said, since vegetable ink did great for the "Domesday Book" and a lot of other stuff printed before the invention of petroleum ink in the 1800s. The Ink Information Center also said soybean ink gives better color.

In short, for almost every reason imaginable (petroleum ink apparently dries faster), soy ink is the greatest, so the committee vote last month figured to be a no-brainer. But four members voted no.

Rep. Alfred A. "Al" McCandless (R-Calif.) didn't believe soy ink would necessarily cost the same five years from now. Rep. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) didn't think Congress should be interfering in the free market. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said soybean ink is not proven to be cheaper. "If it's cheaper," asked Lucas spokesman Randy Swanson, "why aren't they using it now?"

Good question, Randy, but not the right question.

Lucas came to Congress only a few months ago, winning a special election for a seat vacated by a retiring Democrat. The district, Swanson explained, has wheat, cotton and peanuts, but no soybeans.

"Call us on peanut ink, if they ever have peanut ink," Swanson said.

That's the problem, Randy. When Lucas needs votes on peanuts (deficit hawks loathe peanuts), colleagues are certain to wonder: "What did you do for me on soybeans?"