Memo to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt: Next time you're called to testify before any congressional authorizing committees, find a scheduling conflict.

Babbitt, testifying July 9 in U.S. District Court here in a suit over Indian trusts, was questioned by former representative Elliot Levitas (D-Ga.), representing the Indian plaintiffs.

This matter "is more complicated because one of the hardest things to divine is the intent of Congress," Babbitt said, "because most of the time on a lot of legislative things there is, in fact, no intent of Congress in the sense of parsing legislation because legislation is put together usually in a kind of House-Senate kind of thing where it's the munchkins who actually draft the legislation at midnight in a conference committee and it goes out."

(Hmmmm. Just think. If Babbitt had ever gotten that Supreme Court nomination he just missed, he would have been a staunch backer of Justice Antonin Scalia's views on legislative history. . . . )

Asked how often he testified before authorizing committees, Babbitt wasn't sure. "I mean, you know, nothing ever gets done on any level in the authorizing committees," he said. "I go. I go when I got to go. Now, how many times have I talked about Indian affairs? The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, under Senator [Daniel K.] Inouye [D-Hawaii] and Senator [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] had me up there a number of times."

"But basically you consider the authorizing committees not particularly relevant?" Levitas asked.

"Sir, every committee of the United States Congress is, for the record, highly important, deserving of the utmost deference and respect," Babbitt said.

"Why do I think that answer is in conflict with the one you just gave?" Levitas asked.

"Because you're a cynical lawyer trying to push me off a cliff," Babbitt said to general laughter.

Babbitt best be careful if he has to go to Munchkinland any time soon lest a House--or Senate--fall on him.

Hatch's Own: What's Good for the Goose Is . . .

The long-simmering standoff between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and the Clinton administration over a judgeship for Hatch pal Ted Stewart is moving into a new phase. Stewart is strongly opposed by enviros and liberals.

The administration sent Stewart's name for preliminary vetting by the FBI and evaluation by the American Bar Association. The ABA review, it turns out, is being handled by the much-esteemed Charles Renfrew, a 71-year-old retired federal judge in California and deputy attorney general in the Carter administration.

Renfrew has become, in effect, like a one-man base closing commission such as those appointed to resolve congressional fights over closures. If Renfrew deems Stewart unqualified, the White House almost surely won't nominate him. Hatch, who's already stripped the ABA of a formal role in nominations, would go ballistic, but that would be that, although the confirmation process, which showed some life of late after the White House moved a bit on Stewart, might close down anew.

But if Renfrew decides Stewart is qualified--and, given the record of some of our fine federal judges over the years, Stewart's chances of meeting those standards are most excellent--then the White House would not be able to argue about his credentials.

That would shift the focus to whether President Clinton can get a commitment from Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to move on several long-pending judgeships. No horse-trading here, we are certain. If Stewart's nominated, Hatch wrote the administration, "The White House can count on my continuing fairness in the committee's consideration of judicial nominees." That "has led" to 305 Clinton federal judges, he noted. Even if his pal is not nominated, Hatch said he would continue to do the right thing.

Still, the Senate has only confirmed nine judges so far this year, most of them holdovers from last year, and Hatch did not hold a confirmation hearing on any new nominees until last month. The second was held on Friday. Word is there may be another one before Aug. 6, when the Senate is set to take off for summer recess.

Might want to hold off on ordering those black robes until Renfrew submits his assessment.

. . . And Finally, Fish

Clinton has said he will nominate Andy Fish, who has been deputy chief counsel to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry since 1997, to be assistant secretary for congressional relations at the Department of Agriculture.

Henry Smith, an early Clinton '92 campaign worker in New Hampshire, is leaving his job as acting assistant secretary of education for intergovernmental affairs and moving to run the American Jewish Congress's D.C. office.

On the ambassadorial front, Clinton has picked three career Foreign Service officers to serve in posts in Africa:

Jeffrey Bader, who has served in China, Hong Kong and Zambia and is director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council, is to be ambassador to Namibia. Thirty-year Foreign Service veteran Gregory Lee Johnson, who has served in Asia, Latin America and Europe, is to be ambassador to Swaziland. And Jimmy J. Kolker, a 22-year veteran who's served in numerous embassies in Europe and Africa, is to be ambassador to Burkina Faso.