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Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Thomas's 'police state'

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Rep. Bill Thomas, the imperious Ways and Means Committee chairman, faced criticism behind closed doors Monday.

His critics felt he had brought dishonor on the House of Representatives. They demanded Thomas apologize for calling Capitol Police to disperse Democratic colleagues. The demands came not from Democrats, but from his closest associates: Republican Ways and Means members.

These were the legislators who after the 2000 election boosted Thomas over the more senior Rep. Philip Crane to the chairmanship of one of the most important committees in Congress.

Consequently, Thomas did not respond to Monday's criticism with his customary disdain and even promised something of an apology. "He acted like a human being, which confirmed the opinion of those of us who believe he really is a human being," a Republican member told me.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert laid down the law to Thomas. On Wednesday, an emotional Thomas took the House floor to say he was sorry for embarrassing the institution.

Thomas, perhaps the most talented and most difficult figure on Capitol Hill, causes plenty of trouble by himself. But he is part of a broader problem in this ninth year of Republican House control. Longtime GOP members cannot forget 40 years in the Democratic desert and are still resolved to repay indignities they suffered as the minority party. The result is arrogance that provokes disorder.

The leading proponent of this style is Bill Thomas, a former California political science professor who has delivered so much important legislation for President Bush that he should be called the mailman.

Just before midnight last Thursday night, Democrats were notified the committee the next morning would complete a bill reforming employer pension plans. The measure contained changes advocated by Democrats, but nothing really new. Although there was no need to rush consideration, this is the way Thomas functions.

That put the ball in the court of Thomas's Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Charles Rangel. While often the most amiable of men, Rangel is no less partisan than Thomas and delights in taunting the chairman.

On Friday morning, Rangel demanded a line-by-line reading of the pension bill to kill time while Democratic members left the room to consider their next move in the committee's library. "You can delay, but you cannot deny," Thomas told Rangel as the Democrats left.

Thomas's comments were gratuitous, but he went much further by ordering Capitol Police to evict Democrats from the library -- without informing fellow Republicans. Rangel refused to move, and the policemen wisely retreated from a tiff between congressmen.

As Democrats left the committee room, Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark -- second-ranking Democrat on Ways and Means -- had offered to stay behind to keep watch on the Republicans. A multi-millionaire liberal from the San Francisco area, Stark often so exceeds acceptable bounds of conduct as to make Thomas seem a model of decorum.

Committee Democrats who thought it unwise to take up Stark's offer were proved correct. As Thomas raced toward approval of the bill, he was targeted by unprintably vulgar invective from Stark. After Stark called 50-year-old Republican Rep. Scott McInnis "a little fruitcake," colleagues feared a fist fight involving the 71-year-old Democrat.

The sordid affair moved to the floor Friday afternoon with Democrats complaining about a "police state." Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, as he frequently does, took the House back to yesteryear when he was a valiant fighter for civil rights. "We will not be intimidated," he shouted. "We will not be immobilized."

Democratic whining was overdone, but Republicans were uneasy. One GOP Ways and Means member was surprised at church Sunday in his home district to be approached by three concerned worshipers asking what in the world Congress was doing.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" that morning, Speaker Dennis Hastert declared: "Sometimes, people's behavior appears to be behavior you see out of third-graders. I'd just say, let's grow up and get our work done." Everybody knew the speaker was talking about Thomas as much as Stark.

At the intense session of Ways and Means Republicans Monday, Rep. Rob Portman -- who presides over the House Republican leadership and sponsors the pension bill -- called for the committee to reconsider the measure with Democrats present. Thomas refused, but appeared ready to concede error in calling for the police. That could be a cautious first step toward pacification in the people's house.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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