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Besides scandals, there's always El Nino

If you've been following the news lately, then surely you know that there's a sex scandal in the White House and that we have a tear on with Iraq and that it's been pouring out West.

If you're in the Washington news game, then you might crow over having two out of three huge stories fall in your lap - and let the rain fall where it may.No way, El Jose.

While tracing fresh bimbo eruptions, Washington correspondents are also honor-bound to report what President Clinton has had to say about the soggy mess in California: "My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the floods and mudslides."

Already well acquainted with media mudslides, the president coupled his concern with a $300 million check for disaster relief. It will go to Californians who've suffered from tempests triggered by El Nino, caused by warm currents off the coast of South America.

Atop this cyclical weather phenomenon it's awfully tempting to pile a cynical writer's phenomenon: How is it that Clinton, schooled in currying favor with the voters in large swing states, has not yet seen fit to comfort the folks in Florida? After all, on account of El Nino, it's also been raining quite a lot down there - enough, in fact, to make much of South Florida eligible for federal disaster funds, too.

Clinton might have said: "I call upon the fine people of New York and Boston, where the sun is shining and where winter utility bills have fallen to modern lows, to hop on planes and rent condos in a state that has had an unfair share of tornado warnings."

In any event, thanks to Clinton, taxpayers as a whole are doing something nice for uninsured property owners on both coasts who have endured large losses from a succession of floods and mudslides.

Praise for taxpayers isn't meant to slight tax collectors, who, it should be noted, are also doing their part in the El Nino sog-ga. Message: Refunds can ease the storms' drain. The IRS doesn't mind if you deduct casualty losses from your 1998 tax bill, so long as you play by the rules.

Let's say in 1970, as a struggling young actor, you bought a Malibu beach house for $50,000. It was worth $1 million when El Nino wrecked the place. If you get stuck with a $250,000 repair bill, the most you can claim is your original $50,000 price.

However, if you're now raking it in from movie deals, you may be doubly disappointed. The IRS will approve casualty loss claims only to the extent that they exceed 10 per cent of adjusted gross income, plus $100.

Washington reporters who run into a dry patch can always turn to a site on the World Wide Web, run on their behalf by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which offers up a veritable deluge of "El Nino story ideas."

One item comes from Commerce Secretary William Daley, NOAA's overall boss. Daley "announces that the next two months will follow a similar pattern of the last two months of abnormal weather."

Thank goodness a balmy winter makes it possible for beleaguered scribes to walk about Washington in shirtsleeves as we ponder abnormalities, near and far.