A wooden stake doesn't do any good unless it pierces the heart.

An old saying has it that persons with delicate stomachs should avoid watching two things being made ---- sausage and legislation.

I'd just as soon skip the sausage factory tour, but I was privileged to go along on a Capitol Hill lobbying excursion and it wasn't at all hard to bear.

It came at the tail end of last September's fall meeting of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute in Washington. I hung around with several PMI members as they paid visits to congressional staffers. Congress was out of session at the time, so we didn't get to bend any ears of the actual lawmakers, but this hardly matters. Unelected staff people are the ones who really run our country. The familiar faces we see pontificating on the evening news are too busy raising money and mugging for the cameras to actually read or write legislation. It's their staffers who do all the dirty work and then tell the boss how to vote.

PMI's lobbying was focused against the Knollenberg bill to rescind federal low-flow plumbing mandates. Oh, but didn't you read that this bill was withdrawn last summer? True, but Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R.-Mich.) made no secret of the fact that pulling it was strictly a tactical maneuver. Washington insiders say that the anti-low flow legislation is likely to rear up again. The threat is credible enough to make PMI nervous. Reminds me of a cheap horror movie I saw in my youth, in which a vampire feigned death after a wooden stake missed the heart and merely pierced the liver. The earnest but anatomically ignorant young couple who misdirected that stake then turned their backs on the coffin. They did not rest in peace.

The Power Of Publicity

I don't know whether any of the PMI ambassadors saw that same flick, but they know not to turn their backs on the undead. In Washington as in vampire movies, rules are rules. Anything less than direct penetration through the heart will not kill those who live by sucking blood from the public.

Knollenberg is resolute with his quest to ban the ban on anything more than 1.6 gpf toilets. Why? To hear his office tell it, he's a crusader for the American way who's sick and tired of meddlesome government regulations that leave citizens unhappy. To hear everyone outside of his office tell it, it's because his crusade against 1.6 potties has transformed him from just another obscure congressman into a nationally known figure. Dave Barry writes about him. The popular press thinks the Knollenberg bill makes for great filler copy. Talk in Washington is that his quest for bountiful flushes might someday propel Knollenberg into a Senate seat.

One legislative staffer admitted to a PMI representative that "it was a hard bill to be against" because it is such a crowd pleaser. The PMI spokesman countered by pointing out that 37 states have their own low-flow statutes in place that they'd abide by even if the federal law were rescinded, so what's the point? Complying with 37 different standards is precisely the nightmare that plumbing manufacturers wish to avoid. It's why on this issue they are on the opposite side of their otherwise anti-regulatory soulmates.

Then there is PMI's ultimate appeal to logic. They have said to Knollenberg and his allies, if you really, truly feel so strongly that the American people are getting a lousy deal out of the 1.6 restriction, then appeal through the ANSI/ASME process. Send a letter detailing product inadequacies and ask the standards agency to review the engineering data. A letter from a congressman would almost certainly grab ANSI's attention, and this is a more appropriate way to achieve fuller flushes than acting via legislative fiat. However, letters to ANSI never make the evening news. You'd have an easier chance of killing a vampire with a plastic spike than seeing this argument bear any fruit.

Schmoozing Counts

PMI fervently wishes this issue would be put to rest so they could direct their resources at other pressing government affairs. But the Knollenberg bill is a big deal for them. Every fixture manufacturer reaches for the aspirin when contemplating the possibility of retooling for 37 different markets. Because most plumbing engineers design projects in multiple states, you, too, might want to keep some tablets handy. What do their congressional visits accomplish? On the surface, very little. They aren't going to change anyone's mind during these five- to 10-minute encounters. But let's face it, politicians are touchy-feely creatures by nature. Compelling position papers gather dust in every congressional office. Handshakes and chit-chat are required to make congresscreatures take notice. And then there are the unspoken messages that roar loudest of all. For instance, a focal point of PMI's attention was the Michigan congressional delegation of Knollenberg's home state. PMI ambassadors include several executives from Masco companies. Masco Corp. is headquartered in Michigan and employs quite a few people there. That gets attention from liberals and conservatives alike.

In a way, all this comprises a more uplifting view of our political system than most people are willing to grant. I didn't see any positions changed, but I did see people of importance listen and pay attention to folks representing our industry's interests. When the people speak, our political representatives listen. This reminded me of how lucky we are to live in a democracy.

Luckier still when you're a person with enough influence to gain an audience.