The Mad Hatter isn't the only one who always thinks it's time for more tea.

Congress, that acronym-loving bunch who inserted ISTEA (pronounced "ice tea") into the national vocabulary seven years ago, now brings you its newest foray into verbal alchemy: TEA-21.ISTEA is short for "Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act."

In more simple terms, it was the last incarnation of the transportation authorization bill Congress hammers out every six years to guide its annual allocation of federal transportation dollars.

Now comes TEA-21, an obscure acro-nickname chosen to designate the "Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century."

It designates the congressional authorization bill for the next six years, and you can expect to hear this tea-dious little techno-term get badly overworked well into the next millenium.

Ever wonder who comes up with these handles? Try getting someone to admit this TEA-21 business was their idea.

It might be the clandestine handiwork of some covert agency locked away in some deep recess of Washington, D.C.

A Federal Administration for Dreaming Up Cutesy Acronyms (FADUCA) perhaps? A strange little Wonderland where there's a TEA party every six years?

Then there are the abdominal theories of how these acronyms are incubated and distributed for public befuddlement:

Indigestion. Constipation. Gastrointestinal rejection.

But the real explanation for these names is probably something much simpler and less sinister.

Like: "Sorry, Senator . . . what I really meant was, `Would you like another nice tee time?' "