The annual Congressional Geography Bee is one of the Hill's more delightful traditions. It's an event that requires great creativity and sometimes prodigious amounts of chutzpah. The key is to quietly "reclassify" your home county for purposes of calculating Medicare reimbursement. A rural area thus transformed can reap millions in taxpayer dollars. Everyone's goal is to be treated like Manhattan, no matter what the real local costs are.

Part of the Bee's unique charm is that, over the years, both parties have played it with equal gusto, slipping things into the final omnibus budget bill just before the recess. "Usually everyone just groans," one House aide observed, but they all go along.

Some of the six changes this year made sense, in that at least the additions were relatively close to the urban center--such as Hamilton-Middletown, Ohio (GOP Rep. John A. Boehner), to Cincinnati: or Brazoria County, Tex. (GOP Rep. Tom DeLay), to Houston. Lee County, Ill. (House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert), is at least in northern Illinois--if not exactly within a stone's throw of Chicago.

The winning entry this year was Chittenden County, Vt., which moved to what's called the "Boston-Worcester-Lawrence-Lowell-Brockton, Massachusetts-New Hampshire Metropolitan Statistical Area." The entry, believed to have been submitted by Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), moves Chittenden, in the upper northwest of the state not far from the Canadian border, to parity with Boston, a mere 175 miles away.

The Congressional Budget Office says the six reclassifications will ding taxpayers an extra $300 million over five years.

Top Secret Till It Suits Them

The National Security Archive, the anti-secrecy folks, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA in 1995 asking for information the agency might have collected on nine former communist leaders--also known as the "dead commie leaders bio request," even though two are living.

After the agency stiffed them, the archive sued in federal court for the biographical and other information. The reason for not turning over the stuff was simple, according to an affidavit filed Aug. 16 by William H. McNair, the information review officer for the Directorate of Operations.

"I have . . . determined that the CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of documents [the archive] requested regarding specific named foreign nationals," McNair said, "because the fact of such existence or nonexistence is classified."

"This response," he said, "whereby the CIA refuses to confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of such records, is consistently given" for biographical stuff, "unless CIA has previously acknowledged the existence or nonexistence of records."

So imagine archive executive director Tom Blanton's shock a couple of weeks ago when he got "embargoed for release" a fine compilation of documents--mostly national intelligence estimates, which are top secret summaries of what the intelligence community knows--on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991. The compilation was prepared for a conference at the Bush School at Texas A&M and shows the agency was much more on top of things during the collapse of communism than critics give it credit for.

And there, on pages 162 and 163, were pictures of two of those dead commie leaders McNair swore he just couldn't talk about: Hungary's Janos Kadar and Slovak leader Gustav Husak, who we are told "reportedly drinks excessively."

Lightning declassification when the agency wants stuff out?

"Some people are never satisfied," a senior CIA official said. "They complain when we don't release material and they complain when we do."

First Lady's Press Chief Departing

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's press secretary Marsha Berry, who earlier worked for Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), is leaving after New Year's Day to become vice president of communications at the Export-Import Bank.

Y2K Watch in the Basement

New Year's Eve plans? Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says he'll be in the emergency operations center in the DOE basement making sure . . . well . . . making sure. Every week in December, he's having Y2K computer "readiness briefings," even with foreigners, like one he just had with his counterpart in Russia, Yevgeny Adamov.

Richardson has also taken to publicizing the need for readiness in front of the headquarters on Independence Avenue SW, using signs much like the famous "Burma Shave" signs that AARP members may recall seeing on the nation's highways.

CAPTION: The countdown is on at Department of Energy headquarters on Independence Avenue SW.