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Published: Sunday, 4/23/2000

News from the Hill just gets weirder

WASHINGTON - Weird stuff is going on here. But, then, you knew that. To be accurate: Even weirder stuff.

Microsoft and the Justice Department are at war, right? The government won its huge anti-trust suit against Bill Gates' company, and Mr. Gates is appealing. Meanwhile, Mr. Gates is selling himself on TV even more than the guy who wants you to pay down your debt by borrowing even more money.

And now Congress is accepting $10 million from Mr. Gates, who also has lately decided to give large campaign contributions to key members, and is pledging the money for a visitors' center at the U.S. Capitol. (Here's Congress, brought to you and bought for you by Microsoft and Bill Gates.)

THE HOUSE Ethics Committee, which has been trying to redeem itself in the public's mind for years, in 1989 voted to make public its reports investigating the falls from grace of House members. Now that Rep. Bud Shuster (R., Pa.) is being investigated, Republicans have voted to let the committee have the discretion not to go public with its findings. "I can't prove it, but I know it's because of Shuster,'' said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. He said he thinks evidence against Mr. Shuster will be covered up. "Nobody wants to say anything bad about Shuster.''

Mr. Shuster, as the cliché goes, is the powerful chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

THE NATION'S political leaders have been tied in knots for five months over whether a 6-year-old Cuban child should live with his father or his great-uncle as a federal court decides whether a 6-year-old has legal standing to demand asylum. Every day there is speculation that Attorney General Janet Reno's fate in the history books depends on the outcome. (What happened to Waco's impact on her legacy?)

Ms. Reno has explained carefully and repeatedly that she will follow the law, whatever the courts say it is, as long as it's in the best interests of "that little boy,'' avoids violence, and gets him back to Cuba. (Glad that's settled.)

HOUSE DEMOCRATIC leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri is passionately against permanent free trade with China as Congress prepares to vote on the hot-button issue next month. Mr. Gephardt made a "major speech'' (seven pages) against it because he is a union supporter and the major unions are against it. But his president, Bill Clinton, absolutely wants the China trade bill to pass as a matter of "national and economic security'' and so do the GOP congressional leaders, so Mr. Gephardt suggests he won't work hard to defeat the bill. (The man stands on principle, he just draws a line at fighting for it.)

THE MEMBERS of Congress, who have a different take on April 15 than the rest of us do because they get to decide how the money is spent and thus get re-elected and have the wherewithal to pay their own taxes, have hit upon a scheme that is causing them to smack themselves in the head because they did not conjure it up sooner.

You know all those Web sites that find lost money? (You type in your name and address, and it tells you if there are unclaimed tax refunds, judgments from lawsuits, etc., that are owed to you.) Members of Congress have information from the IRS on taxpayers who are owed refunds, and some of them are now putting the names of constituents in that category on their own Web pages. (Christmas in April, and you know who to thank and how next Nov. 7.)

And then there's the census. Some Republicans said people shouldn't have to answer such intrusive questions such as how many bathrooms are in your house even though Congress approved the questions. Now it's occurred to some that their districts stand to lose tax dollars if the census counts aren't accurate, so they're supporting taxpayer-paid ads urging people to fill out the forms completely. (Duh!)

And it's only April!

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau.



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