October 31, 2003

SNAKES SLITHER out of every available opening. Ghastly creatures take shape from the ooze. The undead linger menacingly, trying to avoid a stake through the heart.

We're talking federal legislation here, and it's pretty scary.

Halloween arrives appropriately today during the witching hour in Congress, when the prospect of adjournment within a week or two has resuscitated all manner of dormant proposals in a frantic bid to make them law.

Some aren't frightening, and may even be laudable. But when Congress plays trick or treat at the end of a session, the result is often not candy.

Headlining the freak show is the energy bill, or as it might otherwise be known, the Blob that ate the ozone layer. As expected, lightning-rod provisions to allow drilling in Alaska's wildlife reserve and along the coastal shores of the lower 48 have been discarded in hopes of claiming more getable booty. That would be $19 billion in tax subsidies to the oil, coal and natural gas industries, thus encouraging further pollution.

This beast may yet falter over demands to share the spoils with the Midwest ethanol monster. If not, the Stepford senators in thrall to the corn lobby and its phony environmental claims will have to snap out of it and slay the brute, rescuing only national electricity standards.

The Medicare modernization bill, with its new prescription drug benefit, seems to change shape daily. From some aspects it's pleasing. For example, a plan to charge co-pays for home health care has disappeared. But too much still lurks in the shadows to put fears to rest yet.

California's catastrophic wildfires have sparked a reasonable and long-overdue Senate compromise on forest-thinning legislation. Federal spending would double and focus largely on woodlands near populated areas, while protecting watersheds, wildlife habitats and areas damaged by insects, such as the now-scorched San Bernardino National Forest. In return, legal challenges to logging operations would be expedited.

Horrors remain in a House version of the bill, though, favored by the logging industry.

Legislation masquerading as a favor to Head Start won swift approval from a Senate committee this week, buoyed by its promise to boost funding for the much-loved Great Society program for preschoolers. Behind the mask, though, this version of the measure would deny the opportunity for experimentation with new approaches that Maryland educators are seeking.

Meanwhile, at a time when children across the nation are preparing to gorge themselves on Halloween candies, the Senate is preparing to take a bipartisan stand against obesity by approving federal grants to schools and cities for nutrition classes and to promote fitness.

The proposal is only an illusion because it doesn't have any actual money in it. At least they're saving calories from the pork barrel.

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