Bill Turque: Freshman Day

Few forms of Washington life are lower on the city's food chain than first-term members of the House. Freshmen scrap and scuffle for recognition, but in a world where seniority still counts for a great deal, they fight constantly to hold total obscurity at bay. At committee hearings, they're the ones in the last seats at the far ends at the table. When they finally get do get the microphone, not many people are listening.

It's been ten years since Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) endured his own freshman blues. But the memory was vivid enough that he declared his first hearing as new chairman of the House Budget Committee on Wednesday "Freshman Day," and invited some of the 41 first-year members of the 107th Congress to talk about what was on their minds. "Freshmen typically bring a vitality and exuberance to Congress," said Nussle, "and we need to hear their ideas about writing the new budget."

Adam Putnam looks more like a high-school class valedictorian than the newly-minted Republican Congressman from Florida's 12th District. At 26, the bespectacled redhead isn't exactly a novice-he served four years in state legislature-but he is the youngest member of the House, and a bit self-conscious about it. "I really am old enough to be here, I promise you," he told the committee as he settled in at the witness table. Putnam, who also serves on the Budget Committee, said that the cynicism and lack of interest in politics that characterize his generation comes from "a belief that government is incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities." He urged that Congress make Social Security and Medicare reform a priority.

In general this was a pretty cautious crowd-no rhetorical bombthrowers. Some rookies used it as a chance to flog proposals they campaigned on last fall. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mi.) a former FBI agent, wants to make distributions from pre-paid college tuition and savings programs free from federal income tax. Others used the occasion to voice support for President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut plan, which arrives on the hill today. They said that a softening economy needs the kind of stimulus that a big income tax reduction could provide. "We need employers to employ, investors to invest and consumers to consume," proclaimed Jim Flake (R-Ariz), a one-time Mormon missionary in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Bush's tax package, the centerpiece proposal of his presidential campaign, will touch off a long season of jockeying and behind-the-scenes bargaining that is likely to extend into early summer. The stakes are high, the fight will be long and so hard fought that Freshmen are determined to have a role. Special corporate interests, like the high-tech community, for example, are eager to build their own tax breaks into whatever bill ultimately emerges. A cluster of proposals and counterproposals from both parties await debate. Some Republicans are talking about a larger cut-in the area of $2 trillion-although they might be bidding up the numbers to make their president look more fiscally prudent. House and Senate Democrats will argue that the Bush plan gives the wealthy a break they don't need. "If you're a millionaire, you get to buy a new Lexus. If you make $50,000 a year, you can buy a muffler," Senate minority leader Tom Daschle said this week of the Bush plan. Democrats in both houses are readying a proposal for a smaller reduction ($800 to $900 billion) that focuses benefits more tightly on middle income families. Daschle and House Minority Leader Gephardt appeared on the lawn across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol Thursday morning displaying-what else-a new Lexus and a muffler. Daschle will also have a goose egg, which he says describes the how families making $25,000 will benefit from the Bush package. There's nothing subtle or nuanced about Congressional theater.

CRANSTON REMEMBERED

When former Sen. Alan Cranston of California died in December at the age of 86, the first paragraph of his newspaper obituaries invariably mentioned the fundraising scandal that tarnished the end of his 24-year career in the Senate. In the late 1980s, Cranston raised $1 million from Charles Keating while at the same time intervening with federal regulators to help prevent Keating's Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan Association from collapsing. His role as one of the "Keating Five" (John Glenn of Ohio, Don Riegle of Michigan, and Dennis DeConcini and John McCain of Arizona were the other four senators) earned him a rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991, which called his dealings with Keating "improper and repugnant." Although he said prostate cancer was the reason he decided not to run for a fifth term in 1992, the Keating episode was widely seen as a serious blow to his stature.

But earlier this week former colleagues and staff gathered on the top floor of the Hart Senate Office Building to honor the rest of Cranston's life and career. He was a journalist before entering California politics, covering the rise of Hitler and Mussolini as a young wire service correspondent. When he returned to the United States in the late 1930s, he discovered that the English-language version of "Mein Kampf " had been softened for propaganda purposes. He undertook a more complete translation of the book that made Hitler's plans clear. In 1945, hoping to warn against a reprise of the isolationist policies that the United States followed after World War I, Cranston wrote "The Killing of the Peace," a critically acclaimed book about the Senate's opposition to U.S. participation in the League of Nations.

Former colleagues and aides, including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Max Cleland, Dianne Feinstein, Alan Simpson and Maria Cantwell, remembered Cranston as both as an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, a crusader for progressive causes like arms control, and a mentor. "I wouldn't be in the U.S. Senate...without the mild mannered, distinguished gentleman from California," said Cleland, the Georgia Democrat and Vietnam veteran who President Jimmy Carter named as head of the Veterans Administration at Cranston's urging. A skilled inside player, he also assembled votes for countless pieces of important legislation during his 14 years as Democratic whip. Cranston spent years working for passage of the California Desert Protection Act, that sets aside millions of acres of desert as wilderness and park land. While Feinstein finally guided the bill to final passage, she said it would not have happened without Cranston's perseverance.

"A race well run, my old friend," said Simpson.