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Watching Capitol Hill's rules break down

Charles Tiefer takes a deep breath and holds it for the longest second before exhaling with a heavy sigh. He's thinking. And since he thinks a lot, deep breaths and long pauses are common. They are characteristic of lawyers and scholars, and Tiefer is both.

Two things preoccupy his mind these days: How to grade 160 final college examinations on time, and the possible calamity of a second Bush administration.

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He doesn't come to the latter purely from ideology, though he has been left of center his entire life. After 15 years as a staff attorney on Capitol Hill -- four with the Senate, and 11 with the House -- Tiefer is a noted authority on Congress and the federal government.

While his is hardly a household name, Tiefer's views on almost everything "federal" are frequently sought by congressional leaders and committees, and by news outlets, such as NBC, The Washington Post, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times, as well as more obscure but highly regarded law journals.

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This summer, the professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Law adds his name to the long list of authors analyzing the sitting president with Veering Right (University of California Press, $27.50) a condemnation of what he sees as the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and the subversion of laws to bolster conservative causes.

"I believe ... " the 50-year-old Tiefer begins before lapsing into another long pause, searching for the precise words, " ... a second Bush administration would pose serious dangers."

This will be neither Tiefer's first book (he has written three), nor his first about a Bush. In 1994, he published The Semi-Sovereign Presidency: The Bush Administration's Strategy for Governing Without Congress, which examined the first President Bush.

While that book was not particularly flattering, Tiefer says he has newfound respect for the elder Bush.

"I wrote a chapter in the book that praised how he handled the congressional decision to authorize the 1991 war with Iraq," Tiefer says. " ... He cooperated with open hearings about what the war could potentially cost in money and lives. ... In many respects the first President Bush and President Clinton had similar foreign policies in which neither of them made foreign-policy decisions and war decisions for political ends. It was not until this administration that I was confronted with a different way of looking at war decisions, which put the political considerations first, and the national considerations second."

Liberal beginnings

Tiefer is a thin man with graying hair that hangs over his ears. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and carries an ever-present leather shoulder bag bulging with papers. He was born on Jan. 21, 1954, in New York City. His father was an X-ray technician and his mother a history teacher.

Their home was decidedly liberal. Two factors made it so: His parents had endured the Great Depression and became worshipers of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. And they were Jewish, and the Holocaust and prejudice against Jews were fresh in their minds.

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Even before he could read, Tiefer's parents engaged him in discussions of current events. By the mid-1960s, those discussions were often about civil rights.

"We regarded prejudice as something that had been directed against us until recently," Tiefer says. "[My parents] knew areas that were restricted. They understood what restrictions meant and how it had been directed against them and therefore they identified with people resisting it being directed against them."

Although he enjoyed playing King / Queen (a variant of stickball) as a kid, the seriousness that seems to engulf Tiefer today was evident in childhood as well. Much of his time -- "too much," he says -- was spent reading books about science, history and science fiction.

He and his best friend frequently searched for new books. "We used to bicycle as much as 20 miles in a day," Tiefer says. "We would pick a public library that was far away and bicycle to and from it and see if they had some science-fiction books we hadn't read yet."

He attended the Bronx High School of Science, then enrolled at Columbia University as a biochemistry major. He also joined the campus newspaper, ultimately becoming its editor. That experience proved pivotal, prompting him to add urban studies and history as a second major and to abandon science as a profession and enter law school.

"I found that I enjoyed interacting with people too much for a life in the laboratory," he says.

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Appeal of government

He graduated from Columbia in 1974 and enrolled at the Harvard Law School. "I felt that if I did well in law school, I would then be able to make free choices that would let me use all the skills I had and do all the things I enjoyed doing most," he says.

He found that courses in administrative law and in legislation that involved public policy excited him the most. Those interests would shape the rest of his life.

After graduating from Harvard, Tiefer moved to Washington and clerked for one year for the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1978 he joined the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

His first case -- his only one -- with the department was monumental. Tiefer was teamed with another lawyer to investigate abuses by the Philadelphia Police Department under Mayor Frank Rizzo. The government filed charges the next year against top city officials for openly condoning police brutality.

Tiefer left the department once the case was filed, though; he had been asked to join the Office of Senate Legal Counsel, which had just been created as part of post-Watergate reforms.

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He remained with the Senate for four years, then moved to the House in 1984 as deputy general counsel and solicitor. In 1987, he served as special deputy chief counsel for the joint Senate-House hearings on the Iran-contra scandal, which revealed a secret CIA network of arm sales to Iran to win the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon and to fund Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and five others were charged, but their trial was averted when outgoing President George Bush pardoned them in December 1992, declaring that it was "time for the country to move on."

"I thought we did a thorough job of exposing of what had become a dangerous, hidden, undemocratic way of running wars and deals with foreign governments that the American public would never stand for if done in the light of day," Tiefer says.

Federal expert

His work on numerous congressional investigations schooled Tiefer on virtually every branch of government. Then, in 1983, he began work that ultimately made him an authority on congressional procedure and custom as well, a part-time assignment to teach a course at Georgetown Law School on how legislation moves through Congress.

"To illustrate or analyze what I was teaching," he says, "one day I might be looking at one kind of tax bill, and the next day a spending bill, and the third day an agriculture bill and the next day a resolution declaring war.

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"I learned to look at things the way congressmen do because they have to vote on all of these different bills; they can't afford only to be specialists in one area. They learn to move from one area to another, and if I was going to understand how the place worked and serve them, I had to follow the diverse subjects."

In 1989 Tiefer published an exhaustive 1,048-page examination of congressional procedure that is still used by Congress today for guidance.

After working in Congress for 15 years, he resigned in 1995 to join the faculty of the University of Baltimore. The knowledge of the workings of the federal government that he brought with him makes him widely sought after to analyze the actions of Congress and of the White House.

It was with that background that Tiefer began thinking of Veering Right in 2001.

The editor of Legal Times magazine in Washington asked Tiefer to write an article from an insider's point of view about the dismissal of the Senate's parliamentarian.

"For the first time in history, the Senate had fired its parliamentarian, the officer who is the neutral umpire or judge of proper procedure in the Senate," Tiefer says. "The Republican leadership ... had fired [him] because he had not bent procedure quickly enough to suit them when they were ramming the trillion-dollar tax cut through."

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That article grew into a longer one for a pre-eminent law journal published by the University of Virginia. That, in turn, became the starting point for his new book, which is due out this summer.

Subjugation, secrecy

"Until 2001, to enact a partisan, controversial, unpaid-for tax cut, required 60 senators to overcome filibuster," Tiefer says. "Under pressure from President Bush, the Senate leadership insisted that the budget act be twisted and distorted so that a mere 50 senators -- and not 60 -- could overcome all attempts at debate or general amendment or raising of fiscal objections, and rammed through a tax cut. The procedure was used again in 2003, and it could be used in 2004 and every year in a second Bush term."

He argues that the administration is steeped in secrecy and routinely subjugates proper procedure to achieve conservative goals.

"Only after the occupation of Iraq and the unpaid-for, second tax cut in 2003 did I come to think that the direction was even further to the right than I had thought," he says.

The war in Iraq is particularly troubling to him.

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"Congressionally minded people with a long memory saw disturbing parallels between how President Bush took us into Iraq and how President Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam," he says.

"Lyndon Johnson rammed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution without an honest debate in Congress about how much Vietnam could cost in blood and treasure, and he did it while lying about what our intelligence knew about the situation in Vietnam.

"In late 2002 and late 2003, I saw President Bush repeat what history had revealed that President Johnson had done."

Veering Right will join a lengthy list of books recently published about the president and his administration, which raises the question of the public's continued appetite for the subject.

Tiefer isn't worried.

"The Republican majority does an inferior job of showing the public what is going on inside and underneath the Republican administration [compared] to what congresses did in the past," he says. "The public, who wants to know, is going to the media and the bookstores instead of the Congress, because one way or another, it wants to find out."


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