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Out of the West: Where the season of goodwill never comes

WASHINGTON - This is inauguration season here, a time of purity and innocence and new beginnings, when briefly even Republicans and Democrats lie down like lambs together.

Tell that, however to Dan Rostenkowski, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and one of the most powerful men in a city that understands better than most what power is about. Most definitely, the prevailing spirit of goodwill has passed him by. Indeed, if a battery of press leaks and innuendo is to be believed, when Bill Clinton's great day comes around next week he could be facing criminal charges, of using fraud and corruption to channel campaign contributions into his own pocket.

Were a lesser luminary involved, Mr Rostenkowski's distress would scarcely be worth mentioning. After all, one senior Republican congressman was re- elected last November, despite being under indictment for racketeering and bribery; shenanigans over campaign finances are two a penny here despite countless efforts to reform the system.

Scandal, in short, is no stranger to Capitol Hill - witness the House Bank overdrafts affair, which kept talk show hosts across the country in jokes for months, and then its smaller sister at the House Post Office. At least it seemed smaller.

Six months ago, to universal astonishment, it emerged that one of three Democratic representatives under investigation was none other than Mr Rostenkowski. Since then, Justice Department prosecutors led by Jay Stephens have subpoenaed Rostenkowski aides by the dozen and documents by the hundred, in pursuit of allegations that he engaged in an elaborate scheme to launder dollars 56,000 ( pounds 36,000) of campaign money through the Post Office, by buying vouchers for stamps and then converting the vouchers into cash. A grand jury is now hearing witnesses and indictments may be handed down any day.

If so, we are in for an epic confrontation. Mr Rostenkowski comes from Chicago, where he has represented Illinois's 8th Congressional District for 34 years. By turns gravelly, gruff, and gregarious, with a face like a meatpacker, he looks what he is: a back-slapping, arm-twisting machine politician - arguably America's finest surviving specimen of that dwindling breed, for whom backroom dealmaking, not mediagenic deftness in front of the television cameras, is the hallmark of their trade.

Bill Clinton will be the ninth President under whom Mr Rostenkowski has worked, though the first Democrat since he became Ways and Means chairman in 1981, and as such keeper of the gates through which every tax bill must pass. For those who dismiss Congress as a self-serving and self-perpetuating oligarchy, Mr Rostenkowski is a living argument for term limits.

Love him or hate him, however, his unrivalled committee skills will be vital for Mr Clinton. Alas, just as the president-elect prepares his all-important tax and healthcare legislation, he could be deprived of Mr Rostenkowski's skills. If an indictment is brought, Democratic rules stipulate that 'Rosty', as he is known to friend and foe alike, will have to step down.

As always, though, with politics, the real fascination lies in personalities. What earthly motive could Mr Rostenkowski have for what would be a chickenfeed scam? At 65, he already boasts a record in Washington for which his peers would give their eye teeth.

Had he wanted, he could have retired last year and, under a rule that permitted departing senators and representatives to retain accumulated campaign funds for their own use, walked away dollars 1m the richer. That rule is now abolished; greed therefore is presumably to be excluded. But then again, why would a congressman, who like British MPs is entitled to free postage for official business, spend such a small fortune on stamps?

And what of Mr Stephens - why is he in such a hurry to complete the case by 20 January? Maybe he is a disinterested scourge of wrongdoing wherever he finds it. But for Mr Rostenkowski's supporters, there is a darker explanation. Mr Stephens, they point out, is a Republican who wants to keep a job he could normally expect to lose when a Democrat enters the White House. But were Mr Clinton to remove him with so sensitive a case on the boil, might not the incoming president give the impression of favouring exactly the 'politics-as-usual' he is committed to ending?

These are the sort of calculations understood in Washington - and in Chicago too. Forget the guff about a season of kindness and goodwill to all. 'Politics ain't beanbag,' a fictional saloon bar philosopher of the Windy City called Mr Dooley immortally remarked in a newspaper column that appeared in 1895, a century before Mr Rostenkowski's present discomfort. These days they call it hardball, but the game is exactly the same.