Capitol Hill's Political Cross-Dressers


By Howard Gleckman It's getting harder every day to tell the players in Washington apart without a program. What Democrats once opposed, they now support. And what Republicans used to reject, they now embrace.

Just look at the tax bill wending its way through Congress. One big controversy relates to the alternative minimum tax, a provision requiring people who take lots of deductions to recalculate their income tax using a separate rate formula. The current AMT was put into the law back in 1986 -- at the insistence of Democrats, who at the time saw it as a way to ensure that rich people with lots of deductions pay their fair share of taxes. But now Democrats say they want to repeal the AMT. Why? Because it's starting to hit middle-income voters. Meanwhile, Republicans who used to blast the AMT now say that instead of dumping it, they'd rather cut tax rates or repeal the estate tax. Go figure.

DOMESTIC EMERGENCY. Then there's the matter of holding down government spending. Restraint on spending growth is a key element of President Bush's budget. And he has routinely blasted Congress for using gimmicks to let government spending rise like a helium balloon. One of Bush's chief targets: catch-all "emergency" spending measures that Congress is fond of filling up with all kinds of pork. No more of that, Bush vowed. In his budget, he created an emergency reserve that was supposed to be used only for true unforeseen problems, such as natural disasters.

There was just one problem. When Bush prepared his budget, he left out money for an historic preservation program called Save America's Treasures. It turns out the program has one very important supporter: First Lady Laura Bush. But the budget was finished. What to do? Well, Bush did what any put-upon husband would do: He declared an emergency. This may get him right with Mrs. B, but it won't do much to convince Congress to restrain its own spending.

Then there are the judges. For eight years, Republican senators gleefully blocked Clinton appointees to the federal bench. Lawmakers such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and then-Senator, now Attorney General John Ashcroft buried more than 50 judicial nominations, insisting it's the Senate's prerogative to block nominees who it deems too liberal. Democrats, of course, spent the Clinton years insisting it's the President's right to name his own judges without Senate meddling.

VOTING BLOCKS. Now the robes are on different shoulders. A Republican President wants to name conservative judges. And GOP senators insist that Democratic lawmakers have no business blocking the nominees for ideological reasons. And the Democrats? Well, the same senators who used to defend the President's right to name his own judges now vow to stop nominations they don't like.

Speaking of nominations, there's also the increasingly strange l'affaire Olsen. Theodore Olsen is a high-powered conservative lawyer and Bush's pick for Solicitor General, the Justice Dept. official who manages all the federal government's appeals-court work.

During the 1990s, a group of Clinton haters used a conservative magazine called The American Spectator as journalistic cover for what came to be known as the Arkansas Project, an effort to dig up dirt on the then-President. Olsen served on the board of the Spectator, his law firm represented the project, and Olsen himself participated in a series of strategy meetings involving various investigations of Clinton, at least one participant told Hill staffers and The Washington Post. Yet, in his Senate confirmation hearings, Olsen insisted, "I was not involved in the project...in its management."

CLINTONIAN SYNTAX. Back in the 1980s, a special prosecutor was ordered to investigate some congressional testimony Olsen gave while in the employ of Ronald Reagan. She found his words to be "disingenuous and misleading" but "literally true." Does that ring a bell with all you Monica fans? In the face of this flap, Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatch has delayed a vote on Olsen's confirmation for a few days. But he still insists the nomination is a done deal.

I guess it all depends on what your definition of "is" is. Or perhaps, it just depends on who's sitting in the White House. Gleckman is a a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington

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