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Inside the Beltway: A brief tale from Beverly Hills

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Behold, a passing cultural moment: An interested party contacted Inside the Beltway to point out that former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Alejandro Mayorkas were classmates at Beverly Hills High School in — where-else? — California, members of the Class of 1977.

President Obama has nominated Mr. Mayorkas, currently director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for the second-in-command slot at the Department of Homeland Security, despite an ongoing inspector general's investigation probing the possibility that the nominee had attempted to finesse special entrepreneur visas for some politically connected Chinese investors.

Then we have Mr. Abramoff, the former uber-lobbyist who served more than three years in prison for fraud, tax evasion and corruption of public officials; he has written a memoir titled "Capitol Punishment."

The pair were proverbial big men on campus in their time.

Consider that Mr. Mayorkas is a member of the opulent high school's "Hall of Fame," right along with fellow Hollywood alums Richard Dreyfuss, Albert Brooks and Betty White. He was co-captain of the tennis team and junior class president.

Mr. Abramoff was an extraordinary weightlifter and quite fond of organizing spirited charity events. These days he publicly advocates for ethics reform and teachable moments. One of his first stops: a Beverly Hills High School assembly.

"Corruption permeates Capitol Hill," Mr. Abramoff told the capacity crowd last year. "But a couple things to remember: don't break any rule, and try not to do anything that you would be embarrassed about if it was filmed and shown on the evening news — or put on YouTube."

THE UNDISPUTED LIE OF THE YEAR

Determining the "Lie of the Year" was a clinical decision by some precise researchers at Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. And here is the lie of the year: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," uttered by President Obama. A lot.

"We counted dozens of times that President Obama said that if people liked their health plans, they could keep them. It was a catchy political pitch and a chance to calm nerves about his dramatic and complicated plan to bring historic change to America's health insurance system," says Angie Drobnic Holan, Politifact's editor.

"But the promise was impossible to keep. So this fall, as cancellation letters were going out to approximately 4 million Americans, the public realized Obama's breezy assurances were wrong. Boiling down the complicated health care law to a sound bite proved treacherous, even for its promoter-in-chief," she continues. "Obama and his team made matters worse, suggesting they had been misunderstood all along. The stunning political uproar led to this — a rare presidential apology."

Such reasons made the phrase a winner, and readers in a separate online poll overwhelmingly agreed with the choice, Ms. Holan adds.

RIDGE VS. MCCAUL: CLASH OF THE TITANS

There are a lot of big, empty desks at the Department of Homeland Security these days. So says Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and House Homeland Security Committee chairman.

"Over 40 percent of the department's senior leadership positions are either vacant or have an acting placeholder. This means nearly half of the top positions at the third-largest department in the U.S. government are not filled," Mr. McCaul said at a hearing that examined the effect on morale and operations.

"This is an issue of accountability, or put more simply, who is in charge? Additionally, in my judgment, this sends a signal that homeland security is not a priority for this administration," the lawmaker observed, adding, "From border security to internal investigations, top positions have remained vacant not for months, but years."

Tom Ridge, the federal agency's very first secretary, was among the witnesses, and had his own take.

"DHS reports to more than 100 congressional committees. The Department of Defense, with a far-larger budget and more personnel, reports to less than 40 committees," Mr. Ridge countered. "The endless barrage of Hill inquiries and preparation for testimony drains from the department's leadership (permanent or acting) one of it most important resources — time."

He added, "Let me be clear. Oversight is the duty of Congress. It is your responsibility and it is absolutely necessary. But the current number of congressional committees with homeland security jurisdiction is not oversight, it is overkill."

THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS 'W'

Indeed, he signs his work with a "43".

The artistic output of former President George W. Bush, who has taken up painting with much enthusiasm, is getting some serious traction. His work is featured on his official Christmas card and tree ornament this year. It has been showcased on Air Force One and NBC's "Tonight Show." And now, Mr. Bush gets a little TLC from the White House.

"I think the results are pretty impressive," White House press secretary Jay Carney told curious journalists during the daily press briefing Thursday.

THE CARNEY-VAL

But things aren't always so harmonious. The aforementioned Mr. Carney could have used a whip and chair at one point during his encounter with the assembled press gaggle. They became irritated, then turned upon him, tusks extended. And with good reason. During President Obama's trip to South Africa earlier this week, journalists had virtually zero access to the leader of the Western World, though his administration claims to be a veritable role model of transparency.

Dave Boyer, esteemed colleague and White House reporter for The Washington Times, was an eyewitness to the events, and provides this account of the back and forth, which yielded some more praise for "43."

"Anyone here can tell you that there's less access than under the Bush administration," CNN reporter Brianna Kellar told Mr. Carney.

"For a lot of those hours, the president, former president, first lady and the former first lady were asleep, so we probably weren't going to bring in a still pool for that, or they were having dinner or something like that," Mr. Carney said.

But why were no press or network photographer on the 40-hour round trip flight? That came from ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl.

"We hear you, and I want to address this," Mr. Carney assured him

"What does that mean — 'We're going to work on it'?" Ms. Kellar shot back.

"I want to work on giving photographers more access," said Mr. Carney, adding, "Every White House, every president has had meetings that the press didn't cover."

POLL DU JOUR

63 percent of Americans say tighter restrictions on buying and owning guns is not an effective way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals; 70 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats agree.

32 percent say the stricter regulations are an effective preventative; 26 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats agree.

59 percent overall say TSA agents at airports should carry guns; 35 percent disagree.

27 percent say "better mental health treatment" is the most important prevention factor in preventing mass shootings like Newtown.

22 percent cite "better parenting," 20 percent cite armed guards as factors; 16 percent cite stricter gun control lawns, 8 percent cite less violence in media and in video games.

Source: A Reason/Rupe poll of 1,011 U.S. adults conducted Dec. 4-5.

Murmurs, asides and caterwaul to jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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