WASHINGTON - Rep. Dan Rostenkowski did a strange thing the other day: He called an open meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee to debate President Clinton's budget and tax package.

The Illinois Democrat's decision to let the public into the May 13 session was extremely unusual: In the 12 years that Rostenkowski has been its chairman, nearly all the panel's bill-drafting sessions have been held in secret.

Apparently, Rostenkowski threw the doors open because he was miffed at a group of freshman House Republicans. The day before, the group had staged a rebellion of sorts against the closed meetings of the committee, one of the few panels on Capitol Hill that routinely hold drafting sessions in private.

The freshman Republicans complained about not being able to view the deliberations of the House tax panel, and they introduced a resolution to open all House hearings to the public unless security reasons or the introduction of defamatory material required that the hearings be closed. House rules auow committee meetings to be closed if a majority of the panel agrees.

After gaveling the May 13 session to order, Rostenkowski stoutly defended the panel's practice of meeting behind closed doors.

"This is a normal part of the legislative process and, in my view, essential when we are dealing with a bill as comprehensive and complicated as this one," Rostenkowski said, adding that the closed meetings had occurred under Republican as well as Democratic presidents.

"As far as I'm concerned, what we considered wise policy under two Republican presidents remains wise policy today," he said.

The main reason for letting the public cool its heels outside the committee doors is that an open session would be prolonged by members posturing for lobbyists, Rostenkowski said.

"Everyone knows we get more accomplished eyeball-to-eyeball in closed session," he said.

The problem with Rostenkowski's argument is that his counterparts in the Senate usually hold open meetings. They allow in the same lobbyists Rostenkowski keeps at bay, and yet each year they are still able to draft tax legislation.

Granted, sometimes it takes a little longer. In 1989 Lloyd Bentsen, at the time the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, scheduled a drafting session that began at 4:00 p.m. Presumably, the Texas Democrat was hoping that panel members would be persuaded not to offer amendments because they would want to avoid working through the evening. The ploy didn't work: Except for a short dinner break, the panel worked straight through until 2:00 the following morning.

It remains to be seen whether the finance panel's new chairman, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., will continue Bentsen's tradition of open meetings. Reporters and lobbyists will find out later this month when the committee meets to debate Clinton's budget and tax package.

Meanwhile, back at the Ways and Means session, Rostenkowski had a few words for those upstart freshman Republicans. "I understand that some of our newer colleagues have been expressing displeasure at the closed sessions of this committee," he said, reminding them that "any sitting member of Congress is welcome to view our work."

At least one light moment intruded on the May 13 meeting. Addressing the lobbyists and reporters who normally stand for hours outside the committee door, Rostenkowski said the public should appreciate being kept out of the debate because "it relieves you of spending hours of listening to our deliberations." Not surprisingly, the room erupted in laughter.

In the end, Rostenkowski kept the meeting open only long enough for committee staff members to describe the bill. When their presentation was finished, the panel took a vote on whether to close the session. Normally, the vote is unanimous in favor of meeting privately. This time, the Republicans decided to make a political point. The final tally ran along strict party lines, with every Republican voting to keep the meeting open.

The Democrats, of course, prevailed, and the guests," as Rostenkowski called them, were exiled to the hall. So much for government in the sunshine at the Ways and Means Committee.

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