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An object lesson in the ways of Capitol Hill

March 6, 2008 |  2:58 am

Each of the remaining presidential contenders ostensibly has a day job on Capitol Hill. And all of them, after their own fashion, have pledged that as a White House occupant, they would seek to change the way Congress operates.

On Wednesday, there came a reminder of what helps drive such pledges -- and why the candidates may not have minded spending so much time away from Washington these past several months.

The occasion was a seemingly routine gathering of a House Judiciary subcommittee to discuss immigration policy -- by all accounts, one of the nation's most pressing concerns and one most in need of untangling. Primed and prepped to delve into the issue was Michael Chertoff, head of the Homeland Security Department.

Several lawmakers, though, had other matters on their minds -- and did not hesitate to broach them, The Times' Nicole Gaouette related to us. Some wanted to talk to Chertoff about their latest fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. Others wanted to discuss the the Federal Emergency Management Agency's use of trailers for disaster victims.

As these and other tangents were pursued, Chertoff told chairwoman Zoe Lofgren that he really would prefer to stick to the subject he had come prepared to discuss. Lofgren, a seven-term Democrat from Northern California, mentioned to her colleagues that it would be best if they did not digress. But to no avail.

The meeting took a truly unexpected turn ...

when Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia called upon Chertoff's entourage to all stand up -- without explaining why.

That task fell to Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, like Scott an African American and a Democrat. He said he wanted to make clear, for the record, "that the 10 staff members who stood up behind Secretary Chertoff are all white males."

There ensued a testy exchange between Watt and Chertoff, with the latter cautioning against assumptions about ethnicity based on appearances.

"I know an African American when I see one," Watt shot back.

In a comment directed at the staffers, he called out, "If anyone is an African American, I hope they will stand up."

That sparked laughter from some in attendance (thougn not from Chertoff's aides).

Watt then asked, to truly drive his point home, "If anyone back there is a woman, I hope they will stand up."

Finally, he chided Chertoff: "If you are going to do law enforcement, you need to have an element of diversity."

The scene prompted Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from Orange County, to spend most of HIS allotted 15 minutes of question time establishing with Chertoff that the aides had achieved their positions because of their achievements.

He concluded: "It's nice to know that people are where they are because of merit."

Obviously, that pesky immigration problem isn't going to be resolved anytime soon.

-- Don Frederick

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