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Roll Call, January 18, 2001

President-elect George W. Bush presumably will not shamelessly rent out the Lincoln Bedroom for campaign cash. He surely thinks he is above Clintonian ethics. But he's making an ethically bad start by causing what amounts to a partial federal government shutdown today for the convenience of big Republican campaign donors who are financing his inaugural festivities.

Bush refused to reschedule this afternoon's inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, leading Justice Department officials to ask that more than 300,000 federal workers be sent home early to avoid a rush-hour traffic disaster. Instead, the Office of Personnel Management left it up to individual workers to decide whether they want to take annual leave or get stuck in horrific traffic jams. So the government won't be officially closed, just not working.

Why? Because, according to several federal and local sources cited by The Washington Post, pushing back the festivities to post-rush hour would interfere with the timing of several candlelight dinners for those who helped bankroll inaugural events.

Basically, Bush's decision amounts to subordinating the work of the government, and the interests of federal workers, to the convenience of campaign contributors. Bush surely owes thanks - and candlelight dinners are an innocent enough form of thanks - to those who have forked over $30 million to finance inaugural activities. Private financing of such events eliminates the need for some taxpayer outlays. But let us all understand, corporations, trade associations and other special interests are contributing up to $100,000 each to this cause not simply out of public-spiritedness. They clearly want to be remembered by Bush officials for their generosity. This type of giving is meant to buy what soft money does: influence.

So, what's happening here surely is far different in degree from President Clinton's use of public facilities to collect campaign cash for the Democratic National Committee, but it's not that different in kind. Because the OPM decided federal workers will not be let off during the Bush traffic jam, the government won't lose the $66 million in payroll that it would cost to shut Washington-area federal offices down for a day.

Actually, federal workers should have been given at least the afternoon off, considering that at least one bridge will be closed and travel on area highways will be a nightmare. The bottom line, though, is that taxpayers will lose a day's work from their government. And all for the entertainment of fat cats. It's not a good start for someone who keeps saying he will change the way Washington works.