Presidential candidate Steve Forbes has consistently tried to tap voter anger toward the IRS, focusing on "death taxes."

"You should be allowed to leave the world unmolested by the IRS," he said in one debate and he's called for "no taxation without respiration." Turns out, Forbes should know. As executor of his father's estate, he has clashed repeatedly with tax collectors.

The Internal Revenue Service, our colleague David Hilzenrath discovered, slapped a $31.5 million federal tax lien on dad's estate in 1997, saying this was an unpaid balance. The lien was withdrawn a few months later. In a subsequent letter, which the Forbes campaign provided in redacted form, the IRS said the lien was "erroneously filed."

Forbes, asked about this last summer, blamed a faulty IRS computer system, saying "all payments were made when due."

"[T]hat's one of the reasons why taxpayers are frustrated with the IRS. That kind of stupid stuff happens, and then it takes months to get the thing . . . corrected," Forbes said.

In 1994, Forbes won a lawsuit against the New Jersey tax folks, potentially reducing the tax on his father's estate.

The state tax collectors "were stretching the law, and they were figuring . . . many estates might take the position it isn't worth fighting it," Forbes said.

Especially if the estate wasn't of Forbesian dimensions.

AEI, Brookings, Hoover Pick the Winnows

Speaking of Forbes, the Washington Establishment has tentatively narrowed the presidential race for us. The Transition to Governing Project, run by the American Enterprise Institute in conjunction with the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, has planned four seminars Jan. 4-13 entitled, "How Would They Govern?" "They" is Bill Bradley, John McCain, Al Gore and George W. Bush. No Forbes, no Orrin Hatch, no Alan Keyes, no Gary Bauer, no Pat Buchanan and no Donald Trump.

Albright's Canal Root

Conventional wisdom had it that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, along with most of official Washington, was casting about for ways not to be anywhere near yesterday's ceremony turning over the Panama Canal.

But it turns out she very much wanted to co-chair the delegation with her old boss, former president Jimmy Carter. After all, she worked on this very issue when she was at the National Security Council and still believes it's a good deal.

This even though people, including apparently President Clinton, have taken to believing that the communist Chinese are bent on controlling the canal. (The idea would be that the Chicoms would use it as a launch pad for a strike on Toledo, which would put them closer to their ultimate goal: free tickets to Jacobs Field in Cleveland.)

Albright aides actually looked at ways she could do both the Panama handover and still attend the Israeli-Syrian meetings today and Thursday. Problem was there was no way to go on the 10-hour round-trip flight and not miss all the preparatory work for the historic Mideast gathering. She's also missing for the first time the NATO winter meeting in Brussels, though she may get to Berlin to link up with the G-8 ministers on Chechnya.

Saluting the Departed

It's often the case when senior government officials leave that someone on the Hill throws a farewell party, with the lobbyists the officials once regulated picking up the tab. The invitation will say: "Sen. Foghorn invites you. . . ."

But not so an unusual invite to a going-away party for Gordon J. Linton, former administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. The invitations apparently were e-mailed Dec. 7 to agency employees and posted on agency bulletin boards.

Linton, a former Pennsylvania legislator who headed the FTA since 1993, didn't have a big bash when he left Oct. 31, an FTA aide said. The Dec. 20 gathering, in the Hart Senate Office Building, is styled as a "salute" to Linton, but it doesn't say who's doing the saluting or who booked the room.

"It's self-financed," the aide said; no trade group's picking up the tab. For that reason, it'll set you back a hefty $30 "donation" to salute him. Donation checks are to be sent apparently to two FTA employees. Better have great munchies at that price.

Pearl Harbor of Invitations

Speaking of invitations, a business-type Loop Fan says that on Friday, Dec. 10, he got a Nov. 29, 1999, letter from Aida Alvarez, administrator for the Small Business Administration, inviting him to attend the SBA's annual holiday party that was held Dec. 7. "Interesting that the letter was postmarked Dec. 7," he said.

Maybe it's a new program to limit attendance?

Catching Up

At the Environmental Protection Agency, W. Michael McCabe, a former Hill aide on the House and Senate sides and more recently regional EPA administrator based in Philadelphia, is acting deputy administrator of the agency. Steve Snider, a former newspaper reporter, Senate aide and more recently in the private PR world, has signed on to be agency's communications director.