Lifelong seats

John McCaslin
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Posted: Apr 06, 2004 12:00 AM

He's been on Capitol Hill longer that any other lawmaker today, having cast his first vote in the House on Jan. 8, 1959. At the time, this columnist was 14 months old.

Late last week, 86-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) reached yet another milestone, casting his 17,000th vote in the Senate.

To mark the occasion, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, a West Virginia Democrat who considers Byrd his "mentor," crossed the Capitol to appear with the senator for his historic vote.

"They say that records are made to be broken, but I believe this record will never be broken," Rahall said after the vote.

We're not so sure. Rahall has served in Congress for 27 years, and he'll be only 55 on May 20.

LAURA'S ROLE

First lady Laura Bush has received a stack of letters from a group of kindergarten students, whose teacher posed the question: "What do you think Mrs. Bush does all day?"

Shelby replied: "She helps the president with his paperwork and then helps him clean his office. She takes care of him when he's sick and puts cold cloths on his head."

Megan said: "She feeds the dogs and she plants the daffodils and she does the president's speeches when he isn't feeling well."

While Todd noted: "She wears pretty suits and she has to shovel the snow and feed the birds."

IMPERIAL PAIR?

So much for Richard M. Nixon's covert conduct in the Oval Office.

"George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have created the most secretive presidency in my lifetime," writes former Nixon White House Counsel John W. Dean in his new book, "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush" (Little, Brown)

"Because of Watergate, no president has been so foolhardy as to openly initiate a program like Nixon's to screw those with whom he or his top aides are unhappy and to blatantly help friends - that is, until the Bush II administration," Dean writes.

The former Watergate figure cites the president's efforts to shield actions of his executive branch; the White House "outing" of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife, a covert CIA agent; what he considers the assault on the environment; and one of the most "appalling" examples - protecting the beef industry by withholding relevant information on mad cow disease, discovered in the United States on Dec. 24, 2003.

"Not only does this secrecy far exceed anything at the Nixon White House, but much of the Bush-Cheney secrecy deals with activities similar to Nixon's," warns Dean, who says the clock has been turned back to "pre-Watergate years - a time of unaccountable and imperial presidency."

BETTER SAFE

Thirty-six senators and thousands of staffers who returned to their offices in the Russell Senate Office Building after discovery of lethal ricin powder last winter - only to find personal property damaged or missing - can now file claims of up to $4,000 each.

Traces of the toxin were confirmed in the mailroom of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Feb. 2 after an intern noticed powder on a letter-opening machine. The building was closed for three days during cleanup.

There has been speculation since then that the ricin powder was merely a byproduct of paper or paper dust. Still, after millions of lethal anthrax spores were released by one or more terrorists in the Senate Hart Office Building two years ago, authorities are taking no chances.

SENIOR BREAK

Americans age 65 and over who found life only got harder when it came time to paying Uncle Sam could finally be filing federal taxes with a short form.

Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), a former college professor, introduced the "Simple Tax for Seniors Act" on April 1. Under current Internal Revenue Service rules, more than 35 million Americans are prohibited from using the short form simply because they're over 65.

"It is a bizarre oversight that the IRS discriminates against American seniors using the 1040-EZ due to nothing other than age," says Burns.

KNOWS NO BORDERS

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, his homeland security agency charged with protecting U.S. borders, never thought he'd be presenting awards for heroism along the Chinese border.

A pair of U.S. Border Patrol senior agents are being recognized for their "heroic efforts" in helping to rescue 22 persons from a Soviet-made helicopter that crashed deep in the Kyrgyzstan mountains near China.

Agents James E. Bunner Jr., of Spokane, Wash., and Raymond M. Overholt, of Tucson, Ariz., were providing training last month as part of CBP's Export Control and Border Security (EXBS) program when the crash occurred. Two persons, including the pilot, were killed.

When not rescuing crash victims, the EXBS program, which operates in more than 40 countries, helps foreign governments prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

CONTINUITY OF CONGRESS

It's an unpleasant thought, but a constitutional amendment on congressional succession has been introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)

"Much has been said over the last couple years about the need to make sure we have a functioning Congress that is perceived as legitimate in the case of a national disaster that kills or incapacitates a large proportion of members of Congress," the congressman notes.

Under his proposal, each general-election candidate for the House or Senate would be authorized to publicly appoint, in ranked order, 3 to 5 temporary successors. The congressman likens his proposal to a vice president succeeding a deceased or incapacitated president - not separately elected, but chosen by the principal and known well in advance of the election.

I TOLD YOU SO

Pat Buchanan was right all along, some in Congress now concede.

"I look back to the years when Pat Buchanan was running for president and he insisted that we have a nationwide debate on immigration," says Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). "I regret that we were not able to move that debate forward at that time, shape this policy before we got to this critical situation that we are in today, with massive numbers flowing over the border and not a policy to deal with it."

Other lawmakers have similarly undertaken closer examinations of U.S. immigration policy, and they don't like what they see - particularly the number of illegal aliens continuing to penetrate the porous U.S.-Mexican border.

"My home and vehicles have been broken into 22 times in five years," writes an Arizona woman, Rhonda Rose, her letter read on the floor of the House on Friday by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

"I stopped calling the police each time they do now, because they do not come anyway," she says. "Instead, we bought a gun. We scared off the last illegal alien trying to steal our truck. He knew enough English to say 'sorry' as we pointed the gun at him.

"Not too long ago, a car ran into the rear end of my car," Rose adds. "The policeman came and ... the illegal alien who hit me said 'sorry' as he walked away. He was free to go. I was free to pay the deductible on my car and the chiropractor bills for my children and myself."