AUSTIN, Texas -- Hang in there, Texas Eleven. You are not forgotten.

            Gov. Goodhair Perry says the AWOL senators are holding up "issues of great importance to the people of Texas." That's funny. There has been one and only one item of business on the agenda for both special sessions called by the guv (at a cost of $1.7 million each): the crass rejiggering of congressional distric lines in order to elect more Republicans out of Texas. Using taxpayer money for partisan political purposes, period.

            Really Bad Idea of the Week: Attorney General John Ashcroft is now investigating judges. He is requiring prosecutors to report cases where the judge hands down sentences that are less than the federal guidelines suggest. This is part of a concerted effort by both Congress and the Justice Department (part of the executive branch) to pressure judges to follow rigid sentencing guidelines. When last consulted, the Constitution still said there are three co-equal branches of government -- the executive is not assigned to intimidate the judiciary.

            Federal guidelines establish a range of sentences for particular crimes, but they also permit judges discretion to impose a more lenient sentence if the circumstances warrant. In addition to Ashcroft's rating list, the House Judiciary Committee has taken the extraordinary step of threatening to subpoena the records of Judge James Rosenbaum, chief judge of Minnesota, because he testified against a bill that would have reinstated mandatory 10-year sentences for first-time drug offenders. Not only are mandatory minimums a terrible idea, so is humiliating a federal judge.

            Rosenbaum, a Reagan appointee, turns out to have only three instances of "leniency" on his record (two in a matter of 120 months, rather than 121) -- unlike Bush's nominee for the Fifth Circuit, Charles Pickering. Pickering, as his Republican defenders have been proudly pointing out, has given "lenient" (i.e., less than the guidelines recommend) sentences to several African-Americans charged with drug offenses. Of course, Pickering, that bleeding-heart liberal, also worked actively to get the sentence of a convicted white cross-burner reduced, lobbying prosecutors to drop some charges even after the convictions.

            Still on the general theme of the country going to hell in a handbasket, what happy effect do you suppose President Bush's tax cut on dividends is already having? If you guessed the rich are getting richer, right you are, to an eye-popping extent. Time magazine reports, "Since May, more than 200 firms have raised their payouts to shareholders and -- in a time of scrutiny over pay packages -- the increases are minting riches for bosses who own a lot of company stock."

            Sandy Weill of Citigroup will get $27 million a year in after-tax income, up from $11 million. Bill Gates will get an after-tax windfall of $82 million a year, just what he needs. Of course, that's $82 million less for a treasury that's now running a $455 billion deficit. Iraq is turning to manure in our hands because we aren't putting enough money into that endeavor. Veterans are getting shafted, Ashcroft is taking names, and anyone who complains gets accused of treason. Boy, these Republicans really know how to ruin a country, don't they?

            If it weren't for Bill O'Reilly, we wouldn't be having any fun at all. In one of the most hilarious lawsuits ever filed, Fox News is suing the satirist Al Franken over his new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." One of the photos on the cover is of O'Reilly.

            Fox is actually claiming that the words "fair and balanced" belong to Fox as part of its trademark. Franken in turn is threatening to trademark the word "funny." I think I'll trademark "insightful."

            The lawsuit accuses Franken of being "deranged," "a parasite," "sophomoric" and lacking "any serious depth or insight." That certainly proves O'Reilly doesn't lie like a rug. I got caught in a verbal slugfest between the two of them recently in Los Angeles. The high point was when O'Reilly cleverly riposted Franken's account of his lies by screaming: "Shut up! Shut up!" A particularly sound argument, I thought.

            Franken, in turn, said, "Bill, we're not on Fox News."

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.