AUSTIN, Texas -- Good grief, the tree's not down yet, the bills aren't due and the diet doesn't start until the bowl games are over, so what's with the unseemly haste? Not even time to take a deep breath here in 2004, and already we're like the white rabbit -- behind, breathless and late.

            Not that I suspect this administration of managing the news -- horrors, no -- but a number of unusual objects were dropped into the holiday punch bowl whilst the rest of us were still caroling and wassailing, including quite a few bad nooz items for the Bush team.

            One interesting piece of information that got completely lost earlier in the capture of Saddam Hussein was the resignation of David Cay, the guy in charge of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The search for WMD in Iraq has effectively ended. (Liz Carpenter said, "I must have seen 20,000 shots of them looking through Saddam's hair and into his mouth -- they're not gonna find the WMD in there.")

            Among the items that got buried in the holiday rush were three court of appeals decisions that go against the delusions of grandeur of the Bush team. No, the president alone cannot detain U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants"; no, the "enemy combatants" we have held for three years at Guantanamo cannot be denied the right to seek court review of the legality of their detention; and no, the statute criminalizing undefined "material support" to designated "terrorist organizations" is not constitutional.

            While we understand that the Bushies believe it is the function of the courts to do whatever Republican presidents wish (they don't want conservatives on the bench, they want obedience from the bench), it was refreshing to see the several appeals courts insisting on, ahem, the law. Turns out an appeals court also finds weakening the Clean Air Act by executive order is not constitutionally kosher. Hope that's not too controversial for our friends in the "original intent" camp: The president of the United States cannot go about unilaterally changing the law. Egad, what will they think of next?

            Weakening the Clean Air Act was Bush's ugly little payoff to the utilities industry at the expense of public health. Speaking of which, is anyone actually surprised to find mad cow disease among us? I was amused to hear a television pundit conclude that mad cow is "not a political issue." What he meant was, "not a partisan issue," in that R's and D's can be found on both sides of the efforts to prevent this very thing from happening. I assure you, this is profoundly political. Mad cow disease is exactly about how our political system is corrupted by special interest money. It is also a perfect example of how greed leads directly to bone-headed stupidity.

            In 2001 and 2002, Democrats introduced amendments to increase and improve meat inspection: The Republicans and Democrats from cow states opposed them. Not only could the D's not get more appropriated for food safety, in 2002, the administration held up $239 million that had already been appropriated.

            Of course we should have stopped using downer cows for meat. Of course we should be enforcing feed regulations. Of course we need to inspect more meat faster. So obvious, so self-evident, but you do know why things like this keep happening. The cattle industry wanted to protect its profits, even though downers are not a significant factor to begin with. Greed leads to stupidity, and stupidity leads to deep doo-doo.

            Nor is mad cow disease the only consequence of heavy meat and poultry contributions to the Republicans (in the 2000 elections, corporate food production combines donated $59 million in both hard and soft money, 75 percent of it to Republicans). See the chapter "Ready to Eat?" in my book "Bushwhacked" for the anatomy of a listeriosis outbreak that killed several people.

            As Lou Dubose and I conclude, if you must eat while Republicans control both the White House and Congress, you may want to consider becoming a vegetarian. I am especially fond of the USDA inspection memo we uncovered that drew the following reaction from the Government Accountability Project: "Feces is feces whether it's fibrous or not. ... The USDA is abandoning the zero-tolerance standard for fecal contamination and replacing it with a new standard: 'wholesome unless there is gross contamination.' It's impossible for this standard to coexist with the agency's claim that it makes decisions based on science. 'Gross' is an inherently subjective standard."

            While I agree with the Accountability Project, I think you will find that "gross" is pretty close to scientifically accurate when it comes to the Bush performance on protecting the meat supply. I come from a ranching state, and I find it heartbreaking that this happened just when ranchers are finally getting back on their feet. But this is an event any nincompoop could have predicted, all caused by greed leading to stupidity.

            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 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.