Politics

Oppressed Minority

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Chris Van Hollen came to Washington to make a difference. Running for the House of Representatives in suburban Maryland last year, he called himself a candidate "for people who care about issues." The Washington Post agreed, raving that he had "the makings of an exceptionally effective member of Congress." Although he was an obscure state legislator at the time, Van Hollen worked furiously to defeat three strong opponents in a September primary, including the handsome and stupendously well-connected Mark Shriver, who happens to be the nephew of a president named Kennedy. In the general election, he toppled Connie Morella, a 16-year Republican incumbent, becoming one of just two Democrats nationally to defeat a sitting House Republican. The victory prompted the Post to declare him "a national Democratic star."

Meeting Van Hollen, it's not hard to understand the acclaim. With his bright eyes and short, curly, reddish hair, he is a model of eager industriousness. A young-looking 44 years old, Van Hollen often wears a self-effacing grin that seems to say, "I'm working hard, but I don't mind it." He carries with him at all times a neatly organized three-ring black binder filled with memos, letters, and his overstuffed daily schedule, which has him constantly racing around the Capitol. Riding an elevator in a House office building recently, Van Hollen used the advantage of his forced confinement to flip open the binder and study a memo when a fellow representative, Michael Castle of Delaware, stepped on. "Working on the elevator?" Castle exclaimed. "Very impressive!" Van Hollen looked up and flashed the working-hard-but-don't-mind grin.

But, on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-May, Van Hollen isn't grinning. He's waiting to ask permission, which will probably not be granted, to make an effort, which will almost certainly fail, to alter a piece of legislation. This has him standing in a hallway outside the door to H-313, a cramped, hard-to-find space on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol Building that serves as the hearing room of the House Rules Committee. While "Rules Committee" may sound like something that enforces dress codes, it is in fact one of the most powerful, if little-known, bodies in Congress. Rules dictates nearly everything that happens on the floor of the House of Representatives, from how long bills will be debated to which amendments and legislative alternatives--if any--will be granted a vote. With a crack of the gavel, the Rules Committee can, and often does, decree that even a bill or an amendment with clear majority support never comes up for a vote. In some ways, the House floor is merely a stage; H-313 is where the scripts are written, the outcomes preordained. Democrats often say that c-span would better serve the public by moving its cameras from the House floor to this room.

Van Hollen is here today because, he says, his constituents are facing a "sneak attack." Earlier in the month, he discovered a provision, buried within a gigantic Pentagon budget bill, that would strip decades-old civil service protections from up to 700,000 Defense Department workers, thousands of whom live in his district. The measure purports to boost efficiency, but, to Van Hollen, it will suddenly, expose these workers to managerial whims--or, worse, raw political pressures. So he wasted little time offering an amendment to strip the provision from the larger defense bill. With the Rules Committee considering whether to allow a vote on his amendment, Van Hollen has come to argue on its behalf. But there's not much cause for optimism. Given the committee's nine-to-four Republican majority, Rules hearings tend to have a kangaroo-court quality.

Suddenly the heavy door swings open, and a young woman in a power suit summons Van Hollen inside. H-313 is an absurdly small space, about half of it consumed by the committee dais, which has the oversized look of a large couch in a tiny studio apartment. A few dozen worn wooden chairs offer visitors less legroom than a coach-class seat. The air is humid and stagnant. Van Hollen navigates a narrow aisle between the chairs and squeezes behind a small witness table alongside Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the lead co-sponsor of his amendment. Presiding at the dais is John Linder, a grim-faced Georgia Republican. Cooper speaks first, then Van Hollen, who argues his case passionately. "This really should be a bipartisan amendment," he says, as Linder crosses his arms and frowns. "This gives powers to the secretary of defense to rewrite the rules governing civil service at the Department of Defense at any time!" Linder's eyes dart impatiently around the room. "It does threaten to undermine the credibility of our civil service as a nonpartisan body," Van Hollen continues--but to little avail. Linder's thoughts are clearly someplace else, someplace where there are no annoying Democrats like Van Hollen. If Linder has listened to a word, there's no sign of it.

When Van Hollen is done speaking, one Democrat on the committee, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, puts up a token protest to Linder. It would be "outrageous" to quash Van Hollen's amendment, he tells Linder. But McGovern's tone is perfunctory. There is a pause. "Thank you," Linder deadpans. Perhaps five minutes after he arrived, Van Hollen leaves.

Welcome to the life of a House Democrat. It has been nearly a decade since the GOP revolutionaries stormed their way to the House majority in 1994, dethroning Democratic chairmen and ramming through their Contract With America. Today, Democrats say they are languishing under the most despotic majority the modern House has seen. They find themselves a completely subjugated, powerless minority--routinely barred from offering bills and amendments, shut out of committee deliberations, even denied such basic dignities as private meeting space. "It's a fascistic system," fumes George Miller, a fiery California liberal who was recently threatened with removal from the House floor after a particularly furious outburst. "The manner in which they're running the House is corrupt." A Democratic leadership aide is blunter still: "We're basically getting bitch-slapped around by these guys because they control everything."

In some ways, Democrats say, getting kicked while they're down only makes them want to fight harder. And there are occasional, if fleeting, victories--last week, for instance, their resistance forced Republicans to withdraw a bill that could have limited workers'-comp time. But many Democrats also admit that, well, after a while, getting kicked starts to hurt. "Morale is tough now," says Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. "It's one thing if you're out there debating and getting covered by the press, and you're fighting it out with [Republicans]. ... We're talking about not just fundamental issues but whether we can even debate fundamental issues." Staffers paint an even bleaker picture. "I'm tired of it," says a Democratic aide departing for a job off the Hill. "It's real hard. ... We're demoralized," says another senior aide, a veteran of more than 20 years. Making matters worse is an acknowledgment among Democrats that, because most competitive House races will likely be in Republican-leaning areas next year, the 2004 elections aren't likely to end their misery.

To an outsider, the haplessness of the House Democrats might seem curious. Proportionally speaking, after all, the House is split about as evenly as the Senate. (The GOP holds a 229-206 House majority--which works out to about the same 52-48 ratio as the Republican-controlled Senate.) But, while Senate Democrats wield real influence, there's often little evidence that House Democrats even exist. That's largely because the Senate is designed to allow individual senators vast power to block nominations and delay floor proceedings. The House, by contrast, offers its leaders enormous power and its rank-and-file members almost none. And, in part because their narrow majority allows so little room for error, Republicans have done a masterful job of exploiting undemocratic mechanisms, such as the Rules Committee, and enforcing a militant party discipline that renders the Democrats irrelevant. "They essentially rig the game," says David Sirota, Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. The result is a House that routinely rubber-stamps the White House's agenda and puts immense pressure on the Senate to do the same.

House Republicans exercise their absolute power in ways ranging from the grand to the trivial. Most significant is their stranglehold on the legislative process. In committees, Democratic amendments are unwelcome, even those from senior Democrats brimming with expertise. (When the House passed an energy bill earlier this year, John Dingell, a 47-year House veteran who once chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee, was allowed almost no role in shaping the bill.) When a bill is ready to come to the House floor, Rules often decrees that Democrats can't offer a substitute bill of their own. When the House voted last year on a prescription-drug benefit, for instance, the Democratic plan never got a vote, leaving the party legislatively mute on one of its top issues. As for amendments, Rules routinely snuffs out Democratic offerings that have any hope of passing or that might make GOP moderates squirm. During debate on last year's defense appropriations bill, Rules sanctioned just two of 40 proposed Democratic amendments. When House Republicans passed a worker-training bill this spring, they dropped language preventing discrimination on the basis of religious belief. That language was critically important to liberals, but Democrats weren't allowed to force a vote on that central issue; anyone who wanted to protest had to cast a Scroogish vote against the overall bill.

Legislative control can take subtler forms, too. Some Democrats suspect that, in recent years, GOP leaders have intentionally delayed work on annual spending bills. The idea, they say, is to force a last-minute flurry of budgeting that allows Democrats little chance to fight for their priorities. "Last year, they jammed it all into one omnibus bill at the last minute so we didn't have a chance to vote on a lot of individual programs," says Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who notes that budget work is again behind schedule this year. This budget strategy has also helped enable Republicans to kill off the pet budget projects of politically vulnerable Democrats. "They've started to get partisan about those things the last couple of years," says a former top House Democratic policy aide. "They yanked out projects"--such as legitimate infrastructure spending--"that you would never have had a problem with" in the past.

Republicans also put Democrats at a disadvantage by hoarding legislative information. Democrats often don't even see the text of major bills until a few hours before they're expected to vote on them. (Neither do many Republicans--but they, naturally, find far less in such bills to complain about.) The final text of the 3,000-page omnibus budget bill that so galled Frost, for instance, emerged just hours before the House passed it. Meanwhile, Dingell complains that Republicans announce committee hearings on short notice, making it harder for Democrats to call friendly witnesses to testify. "From their perspective, they don't need to tell us anything. We're fundamentally not part of the process," says a Democratic leadership aide.

To the most hard-line Republicans, giving Democrats any legislative role is utterly taboo. Just days after September 11, 2001, for instance, House Speaker Dennis Hastert agreed to work with House and Senate Democrats on an economic recovery package. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay protested the bipartisan work, but Hastert, in a rare assertion of his authority over the rabid Texan, overruled him. In a Capitol building conference room a few days later, staffers for Dick Gephardt, then House minority leader, and Tom Daschle, his Senate counterpart, were working late into the night with Republican aides on the details of an airline bailout. Sometime around 3:30 a.m., DeLay stormed into the room in a rage--"absolutely red-faced, screaming and yelling," according to a Democratic aide who was present. "Who elected you to Congress?" DeLay yelled at Democratic staffers. To the Republicans he shouted, "We're getting out of here," before marching out with the obedient aides in tow. The next day, DeLay introduced a bill stripped of most of the Democratic provisions.

Then there are the petty slights. If Democrats want to plot strategy, for instance, they can't even count on guaranteed meeting space. This year, GOP leaders kicked them out of a spacious Cannon Office Building room where Democrats had held their weekly caucus meeting for the past several years. Now they convene in a dank basement room in the Capitol Building--except, that is, on days when Republicans announce they'll be using the room themselves. Earlier this year, Democratic leaders sent a letter to Hastert pleading for a designated, permanently reserved meeting room. They never heard back. "That's a very [Newt] Gingrich type of move," says the leadership aide. "You take the attitude that this is a fight to the death, and you don't give them any breaks. If they can't meet, they can't plan. Why would we help them plan to try to beat us?" When House Democrats held an economic forum earlier this year to spotlight their agenda, the only adequate space they could find was in a Senate office building. "We had one hundred House members taking the subway to the Senate to attend a House function," groans another staffer.

No opportunity is spared to shut out the minority. At the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by the intensely acerbic Bill Thomas, Democrats have been barred from using the committee's hearing room for private meetings. Meanwhile, "the Republicans have rallies in it," notes a Democratic aide. Even the committee's traditional bipartisan holiday party is a thing of the past: Last December, committee Republicans decided to keep the good cheer to themselves; Democrats were not invited.

And yet, Chris Van Hollen fights on. It is Wednesday, the day after his visit to the Rules Committee. With his amendment's fate still uncertain, he heads to the House floor, where debate has begun on the overall defense bill. Although time is scarce, Democratic leaders have granted Van Hollen two and a half minutes of floor time to make a more public plea for his amendment. Meanwhile, other Democrats are complaining about their own amendments, already rejected by Rules. As Van Hollen strolls onto the floor, Dingell is hollering away in an arm-flapping frenzy. "My Republican colleagues have done the same thing they usually do. They have gagged the minority!" With a smile, Van Hollen takes a seat in the front row and calmly flips through his black binder. When it's his turn to speak, he does so forcefully. "Tucked into this bill, Mr. Chairman, which is so important to our national defense, is a provision that I believe could have long-term negative consequences for our military readiness and effectiveness." Seven hundred thousand Defense Department workers, he says, will be subjected to Donald Rumsfeld's "unchecked authority to rewrite the rules ... with respect to hiring, firing, pay, bonuses."

Just as he's working up a head of steam, a gavel cracks:

"The gentleman's time has expired."

"If I could have just thirty seconds more?" Van Hollen asks. Old Ike Skelton of Missouri, who is managing the bill for the Democrats, shakes his head with regret. Republicans have severely limited debate on the bill, and there's just not enough time to spare. "All right," Van Hollen says quietly, and takes his seat.

A few minutes later, Van Hollen sits in a lobby off the House floor, frustrated. "You get your two minutes, and that's it," he sighs. "Somehow, we've got to draw the attention of the public to how undemocratic the House of Representatives is. We talk about bringing democracy to Iraq, spreading democracy across the globe, but we need a little more democracy right here."

What really upsets Van Hollen is the way the Republicans have--quite consciously, he believes--slipped this contentious civil service provision into a large and popular bill. That prevents GOP moderates from facing a sticky up-or-down vote on the civil service language and, although Van Hollen doesn't say this, presents Democrats like himself with an unpalatable choice. He can vote for the bill, hated provision and all--or he can oppose a military spending bill and look forward to the inevitable assaults on his patriotism. Van Hollen isn't sure what to do. "I haven't said I would vote against the final bill," he explains cautiously. "I support most of what's in this very big bill." Which is just how Republicans planned it.

Nothing agonizes House Democrats more than the perception that they don't even put up a fight. And, for this, they have a culprit almost as loathsome as Tom DeLay: the media. This dilemma was never more clear than on May 14, when a group of more than a dozen House Democrats, led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont (an independent in name but a loyal Democrat in practice), organized a press conference on a subject of urgent concern to them: an upcoming Federal Communications Commission ruling on media consolidation. The Democrats assembled and waited for the reporters. And waited. None showed up. None, that is, until a scribe from Roll Call hurried over to cover the humiliating spectacle of a press conference with no press.

"The press has been disgracefully acquiescent," says Frank. "Democrats these days are told by other Democrats, who are not full-time in politics, `Well, we're disappointed. We don't hear much from you.'" One reason for this, Democrats say, is that the press doesn't write about the procedural tactics the GOP employs to quash opposition. The public often assumes Democrats rolled over in cases when they were, in fact, steamrolled. "The press won't cover Rules or Rules Committee votes," says Sirota. "It's process--but it's tantamount to substance."

Shrewdly, Republicans make process stories especially unappealing to reporters. The Rules Committee, for instance, often considers controversial bills late at night, long after the evening news and even newspaper deadlines. "They intentionally do things late at night so they can sneak things through," says Frost, who has dubbed this the "Vampire Congress." Another aide offers a blunter assessment, one borne of obvious bitterness: "The press is pretty goddamn lazy. In order to write about the Rules Committee would mean that you actually have to learn something about rules and procedures. And the press just doesn't do that."

What truly drives Democrats berserk, however, are media reports declaring that "the Congress" has passed a bill, without any mention of even the most furious Democratic opposition. "We're out there organizing press conferences, fighting them on the floor, debating them nonstop," says a leadership aide, "and what you read in the press is, `The Congress passed this,' `The Congress passed that,' and you don't even hear about the opposition." Last month's tax-cut bill offered a case study in the way Democratic resistance often amounts to so much Kabuki theater. With the House GOP pushing a $550 billion tax cut, House Democrats fought the legislation intensely and demanded that a vote be allowed on their own $150 billion plan. On the day of the vote, Charles Rangel, the perpetually hoarse senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, led the fight. "What we are trying to do is have an alternative!" hollered Rangel. "That's not the Republican way, that's not the Democratic way, that's the American way! ... We're not asking to win, we're merely asking to be heard." But Republicans only allowed an absurd one hour of debate, and, in the end, Democrats didn't get a vote on their alternative bill. Nor did many Americans hear about their fight. With the House preparing to vote, a glum Democratic leadership aide lingered in a lobby off the House floor. "It's been a depressing day," she confessed. "I'm just out here to badger any reporters into including a paragraph--a paragraph--on our alternative. But I don't see anyone." The next day, The New York Times did include such a paragraph (after 14 others on the Republican plan), but The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and two of the three major network news shows made little or no mention of the Democrats' protests.

As you might expect, Republicans don't feel particularly sorry for their Democratic colleagues. "It's amazing how short a memory these guys have," scoffs a senior GOP aide. "Suddenly, they've developed a conscience about how to treat the minority now that they're in it." Some Democrats do concede that they didn't always treat Republicans well when their roles were reversed. "Our hands are not clean in all this," says a veteran staffer who worked on the Rules Committee under the former Democratic leadership. "In the last couple of years, before we lost the majority, the Democrats were running scared, and we did cut the Republicans off at the knees a few too many times." But most Democrats insist that today's Republicans rule with a heavier hand than they ever did. "I was there, and, if they say that, it's not very close to the truth," harrumphs Dingell. Independent observers tend to agree, if not quite so emphatically. "It's worse," Thomas Mann, a longtime congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, says of the House's tyranny of the majority. "It's been carried to a new extreme."

More damning are the Republicans' own words from the '90s. When they were in the minority, Republicans wailed that Democrats were effectively disenfranchising millions of American voters. A typical critic was DeLay himself, who complained in 1993 that Democrats were "squelching and squashing the minority" through the rules. "That's what makes this institution ... a shining example of democracy, is that you have this adversarial situation so that truth is out and honesty prevails." Another was David Dreier, who argued, "Frankly, it seems to me that the process of representative government means that a person who represents six hundred thousand people here should have the right to stand up and put forth an amendment and then have it voted down if it is irresponsible." Now that Dreier has ascended to chair the Rules Committee, he has a somewhat different view. "It took us some time to learn about the process of government, so I admit there are some modifications we have made," he told Roll Call in January, with hilarious understatement. When Dreier's Republican predecessor, Gerald Solomon, took over the Rules Committee in 1995, he publicly vowed that the committee would grant at least 70 percent of House bills an "open" rule, meaning Democrats could offer amendments freely. That percentage has steadily dropped to the point where, according to Democrats, almost three-quarters of the bills the Rules Committee sent to the House floor last year placed significant restrictions on floor debate.

Even some Republicans are growing embarrassed by this state of affairs. After Democrats were prevented from offering a prescription-drug alternative last year, Minnesota Republican Gil Gutknecht pronounced his own party's move "indefensible." And a former senior House GOP staffer who once chafed under the Democratic majority says he's disappointed to see Republicans adopt the same tactics they once decried. "It's Animal Farm, really," he chuckles.

Which should be a lesson for Republicans. They know from firsthand experience that the hostility this kind of abuse engenders doesn't fade fast. Should Democrats win back the House any time soon, they may feel just as unrestrained by the charge of hypocrisy as Republicans have. It's hard to see when or how such a cycle of payback might end. "The thing that troubles me is that more and more Democrats are coming in who know nothing more than the way the Republicans run the place," says Dingell. "And my concern is that the Democrats will come back and think that this is the way that the House and a governmental institution should conduct its business." Coming as it does from an old Hill baron, it's hard to know whether this is an earnest lament or a sly warning. But other Democrats aren't so hard to read. Asked whether Democrats will be hungry for revenge should they win back the majority, a senior Democratic committee aide doesn't miss a beat. "Oh, I think that goes without saying."

For now, Democrats are stuck with no good options. Many do say they've been buoyed by the fresh leadership of Nancy Pelosi, who, since becoming their leader last year, has tried to instill a new fighting spirit in her flock. Lately, Pelosi has encouraged guerrilla floor tactics, such as blocking routine legislation that Republicans expect to gavel through quickly. But such tactics tend to go largely unnoticed. So what can Democrats do? When Pelosi was asked this question recently, her response was "win the election."

One alternative--occasionally discussed but unlikely to be implemented--would be for Democrats to emulate the strategy that helped the GOP win power in the first place. With Republicans mired in the minority in the 1980s, Gingrich honored no limits in attacking the House's Democratic barons and, by extension, the institution of the House itself. Gingrich took to demonizing House leaders, calling former Speaker Tip O'Neill "corrupt" and "a thug." Along with fellow insurgents, such as Vin Weber and Trent Lott, Gingrich relentlessly attacked the ethics of House Speaker Jim Wright; insinuated that Wright's successor, Tom Foley, was gay; and exposed the House bank "scandal"--turning a harmless perk into a national outrage. (Gingrich even circulated a 1990 memo urging colleagues to use words such as "sick," "pathetic," and "traitor" in their rhetorical assaults.) "Newt had a strategy," says Steve Elmendorf, who served as Gephardt's chief of staff in the House. "His view was, `We are so far down, and we have so little chance of getting the majority, the only way we can do it is to blow the whole place up.'" But Democrats like to think of themselves as above such tactics. "The problem was always that our members are proud of the institution. So, when someone would make the argument for tearing down the institution on [GOP] ethics, ... it was very hard to get the caucus united around that."

Privately, Democrats believe that the GOP's cozy relationship with K Street lobbyists presents a bonanza of ethics targets. But, ever since a vicious tit-for-tat in the mid-'90s, House leaders have observed an informal truce, reserving Ethics Committee investigations for only the most flagrant and indisputable of violations. Thus, Pelosi resisted pressure from some Democrats earlier this year to pursue allegations that GOP Representative Mike Oxley, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pressured a lobbying firm to fire a Democratic staffer and hire a Republican--with the insinuation that he would then drop a committee investigation into the mutual-fund industry. (The truce may also explain why Pelosi hasn't pressed the Ethics Committee to investigate DeLay's role in having the Department of Homeland Security track Texas Democratic legislators who briefly fled the state last month to stop a GOP-driven redistricting plan.) Even suggestions by some Democrats to attack Republicans on the hoary issue of pay-raises (a Gingrich favorite) are quickly argued down, Elmendorf says.

But, if House Democrats aren't willing to adopt Gingrich's institutional nihilism just yet, neither are they ready to give up. So far, they've avoided the mass retirements that could further sap morale and erode their numbers, but that won't last forever. Just ask Tim Roemer. A bright young Democratic moderate from Indiana, Roemer left the House last year after six terms. Speaking from the Washington law firm where he now works, Roemer admits that the drudgery of minority life hastened his exit from the House. And he warns that centrists in particular are feeling disenchanted as the House becomes more and more polarized. "It's gone from a situation where opportunities were pouring down on us and we were the life of the party to [moderates] being on the margins and struggling to be relevant," says Roemer, whose seat was filled by a conservative Republican in November. "I think it can lead to some degree of frustration ... and a reappraisal of why you're there."

On Thursday, the day of the House vote on the defense bill, Chris Van Hollen learns that the Rules Committee, in a vote held late the previous night, has rejected his amendment. He makes one more trek to the House floor--this time to complain, which is all there is left to do. (The full House must still approve the rule, but like all rules it's virtually guaranteed to pass on party lines.) For half an hour, he waits as other Democrats fume over restrictions Republicans have placed on the debate. Martin Frost is shouting about "violence to the tradition of bipartisanship." In the past, Frost argues, Democrats always allowed several days of debate and the free offering of amendments on defense spending bills, in the spirit of national security bipartisanship. This time, Republicans have allowed just two days of debate on the $400 billion bill and are denying several obviously popular amendments, including Van Hollen's. "This is a shameful way to run this institution," Frost fumes. With that, he yields to Van Hollen. "Mr. Speaker," Van Hollen begins, "I think it is outrageous that the rule proposed by the Republican leadership denies the four hundred thirty-five members of this House the opportunity to vote on the amendment to restore certain rights and protections. ..." Perhaps a dozen Democrats and maybe four or five Republicans are present on the House floor. Many are chatting, reading, or typing into their BlackBerries.

Van Hollen's last chance fails when the rule muzzling his amendment is passed. Shortly after casting his futile "no" vote, he sits down at an oak table just off the House floor. "I'm extremely disappointed," Van Hollen says. "It's frustrating." He's not used to this. Although he's only a freshman in the House, Van Hollen spent years in the majority party in the Maryland state legislature. "You sort of know academically what it's like to live in the minority," he had said earlier. "But it's another thing to live it." Later that night, despite the survival of the civil service "sneak attack," Van Hollen will vote for the overall defense bill.

There's no doubt that Chris Van Hollen--smart, hardworking, and eminently likeable as he is--has, as The Washington Post wrote, "the makings of an exceptionally effective member of Congress." But, for now, that doesn't mean much. In today's Republican House of horrors, there's simply no such thing as an exceptionally effective Democrat.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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