Will a bill fit the US Congress? Consult 'Billcast'

It sometimes seems as if the nation's capital is about to be buried in a blizzard of proposed laws. Congress, for instance, is currently weighing not one, not two, but 78 separate bills dealing with natural gas deregulation.

Since the first of the year, 1,226 pieces of legislation have been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

One senator alone - Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii - has introduced 105 bills this year, including a resolution to designate the last week in August as ''National Psychology Days.''

For those whose job is government-watching, tracking all the legislation that's introduced every year is a momumental task. Lobbyists, for example, spend much time poring over the Congressional Record, attending hearings, and deciding which bills deserve their attention.

Now W. Mark Crain wants to automate that process. A George Mason University economist, he is perfecting ''Billcast,'' a computer program he says will accurately predict a bill's fate.

''Congress-watching is a very time-intensive process,'' Mr. Crain says. ''I'm trying to do that faster and more efficiently by replicating, on the computer, what a good legislative analyst would do.''

Every year, most proposed bills wander into the Bermuda Triangle of the legislative process and then disappear without leaving a trace.

Only about 500 of the approximately 14,000 bills have a chance of passing - 1 in 28. The fate of these hardy few depends on many factors besides intrinsic merit.

Is it a subject Congress wants to deal with? Is there enough time left in the session for the bill to progress through committee to the floor? Is the committee chairman mad at the legislation's sponsor?

It takes years of experience to become a savvy bill handicapper. But Crain, a young professor with a penchant for pointed silver shoes, feels the whole process can be reduced to numbers and captured in a computer program.

''The characteristics of the bill's sponsor are very important,'' he says. ''What's his seniority like? Is he a subcommittee chairman? Is he on any of the leadership committees?''

These institutional positions, says Crain, are more crucial to legislative success than personality or fame.

''An example would be (Massachusetts Sen. Edward M.) Kennedy. Most people would generally feel that he was an influential guy. But he has a very low success rate. He does not hold key committee assignments, compared with a guy like (Louisiana Sen.) Russell Long, who doesn't get near the publicity Kennedy did.''

Crain also takes into account the timing of a bill's introduction, the number of co-sponsors who sign, and various eccentricities of the committee it's referred to.

Currently, Crain's computer is set up to forecast legislation referred to 10 key House committees. The computer predicts the probability of legislation being passed out of committee. For instance, a bill introduced by Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R) of New York to establish economic enterprise zones in poor neighborhoods has a 45 percent chance of making it out of the Judiciary Committee, according to the computer.

Later in the fall, 10 Senate committees will be added to Crain's repertoire.

The George Mason University economist feels his service would be valuable to small companies that can't afford a Washington office staffed with legislative experts.

''Who doesn't deal with government today?'' he asks. ''That's what I'm trying to offer - a low-cost lobby.''

Some of Washington's human legislative analysts, however, were dubious about the value of Crain's service.

''How do you predict the mood of the country?'' asks Patricia Goggin, legislative director at the National Wildlife Fund, where seven employees track and lobby for legislation. ''Who could have predicted the bankers would generate 7 million letters to Congress against withholding taxes on interest?''

And a trade lobbyist points out that most of her colleagues don't spend much time predicting the fate of legislation.

''That's not the hard part,'' she sighs. ''The hard part is getting things to go your way.''

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