WASHINGTON -- You could say that while Eric Holder fiddles, the House Ways and Means Committee bums.
Holder, the newly appointed U.S. attorney investigating the House Post Office scandal, has apparently decided there's a lot more to examine in the financial dealings of Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., than previously thought.
Last week, The Washington Times and local television stations in the nation's capital reported that Holder is planning to expand the two-year-old probe into the House Post Office to include an investigation of Rostenkowski's payroll records.
According to the Times, Holder wants to find out whether Rostenkowski's payroll carried "ghost" employees, who received salaries but did no work.
So, it now looks like a decision on whether to indict Rostenkowski, which had been expected this month, may be postponed indefinitely. That means the cloud that has hung over the Ways and Means panel won't go away anytime soon.
For nearly a year, the cloud has been hovering. In January, word leaked out that Jay B. Stephens, the U.S. attorney at the time, was going beyond examining Rostenkowski's stamp purchases to look at his personal finances. Then in July, the former House postmaster, Robert V. Rota, pleaded guilty to helping Rostenkowski and another congressman embezzle money from the House Post Office.
When Rota pleaded guilty, the conventional wisdom around town was that an indictment of Rostenkowski was just around the comer. Speculation was that the U.S. attorney's office, under the control of a waning Republican administration, would rush to action before a Democrat could enter office and get Rostenkowski off the hook.
But no indictment ever came, and now Holder, appointed by President Clinton, is in office. Presumably, he wants to bend over backward to show the world that he is taking the investigation of a fellow Democrat seriously. That may explain why Holder wants to keep digging.
But as the probe drags on, Rostenkowski's name is becoming synonymous with the Post Office scandal -- even though others are said to be involved, he has not been charged with a crime, and he denies any wrongdoing.
Late-night comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman have poked fun at Rostenkowski. Even the producers of the popular CBS comedy "Murphy Brown," set in Washington, D.C., apparently thought their audience of several million viewers would find humor in Rostenkowski's travails.
In a recent episode, Murphy, played by Candice Bergen, is addressing envelopes at a table in her favorite watering hole, Phil's. Phil comes over to her table to issue a warning: "Murphy, you've got to be careful. Dan Rostenkowski's been eyeing that sheet of stamps."
Amid all the jokes, the committee, at least for now, seems to be conducting business as if its leader were not mired in a swamp of scandal. The panel is holding hearings on Clinton's health-care reform package, and is debating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Even so, with this new development about a ghost payroll, it seems appropriate to wonder how much longer Rostenkowski can continue without the House leadership or even the rank-and-file Democrats in the House demanding that the 63-year-old former Chicago ward politician step down.
Nowadays, House Democrats think nothing of deposing a committee chairman whom they feel can't do the job. A prime example this year was Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, D-Miss., who had chaired the House Appropriations Committee for decades.
Whitten, 83, had been in ill health for some time, but did not want to relinquish his power. Over Whitten's objections, the Democrats voted him out as Appropriations chairman and voted in Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky.
Which presumably makes anyone connected with Ways and Means all the more anxious that Holder wrap up his investigation. Given that Holder's office won't comment, it's impossible to get enough information to judge whether this new foray into Rostenkowski's financial dealings is justified.
Rostenkowski did manage to produce a major tax bill this year despite the unpleasant circumstances. Whether he can manage the same level of effectiveness with Nafta and health-care reform while he stays in legal limbo is anybody's guess.