Some House Republicans have come up with a neat way to fulfill their promise of slashing the cost of Congress: Mooch travel off the Air Force and privatize meals. When members of the Resources Committee recently held field hearings on endangered species and wetlands in Louisiana, the trip included dinner at Armand's in the French Quarter.

Who picked up the tab? The not-so-disinterested Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, Midcontinent Oil and Gas Association, American Sugar Cane League and Louisiana Land and Exploration Co.

A week later, it was dinner in San Antonio, sponsored and paid for by groups like the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers, San Antonio Farm and Ranch Real Estate Board and Texas Association of Builders, among others.

Coming back from New Orleans on March 13, the 10 lawmakers and six aides flew on an Air Force C-9, the military version of the DC-9 passenger jet. The San Antonio return flight a week later for seven legislators and four staffers was even better: an Air Force C-20, the military version of a Gulfstream jet.

The military provided transportation, said Resources Committee spokesman Steve Hansen, because at the time the trip was arranged it was expected the House would have afternoon votes on the two Mondays. As it turned out, there were no votes March 13, and the House wasn't even in session March 20.

And what about those meals sponsored by groups with an interest in wetlands and endangered species legislation? They volunteered to put on the dinner, said Ken Johnson, an aide to Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (D-La.), whose office helped make arrangements.

"We just consider this to be local hospitality," said Johnson. "It's an opportunity for members to discuss issues with people from Louisiana. . . . We didn't solicit any of these companies. I feel confident if any environmental groups had come forward and offered to have a luncheon or media opportunity we would have tried to accommodate them."

One local enviro, Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, took it all in stride. "Actually, they could have gone somewhere more expensive," he said.

Next year, Spago?

Once in Court, His Shirt Lost Its Appeal There was freelancer James Bovard yesterday in the front row of the press section at the Supreme Court minding his own business: on assignment from Playboy magazine to cover oral arguments in a case about whether police officers with warrants must knock before entering a home.

About 15 minutes into the argument, a court police officer approached Bovard and told him to move to a rear alcove.

Seems Bovard had violated a Supreme Court rule -- one that veteran reporters had never seen enforced -- that asks the press sitting in the first two rows of the reserved section to follow the same dress code as those in the section reserved for the bar: coats and ties, general business attire. Women are to be "comparably attired," said court press officer Toni House, though dress slacks with matching jackets are permitted.

It could not be learned whether the court police acted on their own or were prompted by a displeased justice.

A miffed Bovard says it's not like he had on a T-shirt or anything. It was a light blue, striped, "fancy business shirt" that was from "Lord & Taylor."

Maybe he should try Brooks Brothers.

Partisan, Nonpartisan, Bipartisan Despite protests from former House Medicare subcommittee chairman Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) and Ways and Means Committee senior Democrat Sam Gibbons (Fla.), health economist Gail R. Wilensky is expected to be named to head a key congressional advisory commission on health affairs: the Physician Payment Review Commission. It advises on how much Medicare should pay doctors.

In a letter to Roger C. Herdman, head of the Office of Technology Assessment, who makes the appointment, the Democrats said Wilensky, the administrator of Medicare and Medicaid in the Bush administration, was too partisan for a "nonpartisan . . . position." They also complained that their objections have been "thus far ignored," with a "cavalier disregard," despite historical bipartisanship on such appointments.

An aide to Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said Archer regards the appointment as a "settled matter."

As they say these days, Stark and Gibbons "better get over it."

Keeping Boats on a Diplomatic Plane John S. Wolf, ambassador to Malaysia and newly appointed point man for the State Department's "strategic management initiative," needed a simple analogy last week to explain some perceived delays in the new effort.

He needed something Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the assistant secretaries and senior staff could easily relate to. Bowling? No. Poker? Better, but not quite.

He found it. Reminds me of a yacht race, Wolf explained, where the boats are tacking, or going back and forth but are not barging across the starting line before the gun goes off. That would mean a penalty. . . .

Heads nodded around the room.

Pays to know your audience.

On Site to Oversight;Moneymaker Moves Up Suzanne E. Spaulding, formerly assistant general counsel at the CIA and before that legislative director for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has become the general counsel of the Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by the same senator. Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Peter H. Daley, who oversees production of all money and most postage stamps, is moving on to a senior counselor position at the Treasury Department.