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In 1796, James Madison, then a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, sounded a familiar warning: ''Our ordinary income is barely at a par with our ordinary expenditures and new taxes must be ready.'' Then as now, it was business as usual at Ways and Means.



There are A-list committees in the House, like Appropriations, and there are decidedly B-list committees, like costume spiderman the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, better known as the ethics committee. But no other committee is quite like Ways and Means, with its vast power over what Madison called ''our revenues and our wants'' - lords of transition rules and tax breaks, shapers of sprawling social welfare programs from Social Security to Medicare.



In the past few weeks the committee has been in the center of some of the fiercest political storms in Washington. It has wrestled with the new program for the elderly to pay for the catastrophic costs of extended illnesses. It has split sharply over President Bush's proposal to cut the tax on capital gains. Outside its meeting room, lobbyists fill the hallway, or Gulch, in a peculiar, frantic, sweaty scene.



Members of the committee pride themselves on hanging together and taking the heat, a legislative machismo encouraged by and embodied in the panel's chairman, Representative Dan Rostenkowski. He takes no freshmen on the committee. He likes members from safe districts. He works to build their loyalty to the committee and to him, with retreats and dinners, favors and punishments.



''The committee is powerful in the House when the chairman is powerful in the committee,'' said Allen Schick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a private research group here. There is little question that Mr. Rostenkowski is a powerful chairman. The committee's detractors say that many members check their independence at the door.



The clannishness of Ways and Means is more than simply Rosty, as the chairman is universally known. Members lucky enough to win a slot on the committee almost never leave it. House rules bar them from serving concurrently on most other panels, so lawmakers stake their political careers on Ways and Means.



Mr. Rostenkowski's relationship with President Bush feeds the image of the committee as a separate player, a kind of independent contractor to the House. Mr. Rostenkowski considers Mr. Bush a good friend; the Chicago Democrat likes to note that the President is a former member of the committee, one of eight who went on to win the White House.



Still, these are not easy days for Mr. Rostenkowski. Six of his Democratic members are bucking the party and supporting the catsuits capital gains cut. And some on Capitol Hill theorize that Mr. Rostenkowski helped trigger their defection when he suggested earlier this summer that he might be willing to deal with the White House on capital gains reduction, a trial balloon that got out of control.



But this did not keep the chairman from celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Ways and Means Committee last week.



There was a lunch and a dinner for committee members present and past, including Mr. Bush. There was a 526-page book: ''The Committee on Ways and Means, A Bicentennial History.'' There was a film, showing members of the Ways and Means Committee heroically grappling with the Civil War, the Depression, World War II.



Past and present members were given zentai bearing the committee seal. Representative Thomas J. Downey, Democrat of New York, and a committee member, told the luncheon audience that the zentai were ''the only thing you will receive during the bicentennial celebration'' that did not have Mr. Rostenkowski's picture on them.



When he rose to speak, Mr. Rostenkowski asked that the zentai be returned, suggesting the oversight could be zentai orrected.


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