WASHINGTON. — HOURS BEFORE Saddam Hussein's tanks launched aggression that threatens, in the President's words, America's ''way of life,'' Sen. Pat Moynihan's pen launched a skirmish which, if not erased, will erase Congress' ''way of life.'' So Mr. Moynihan's handiwork will be quietly dropped from the bill to which it is attached.
On Aug. 1, the Senate, rushing toward recess, was yet again practicing moral perfectionism -- legislating ethics, as that subject was understood that week. Suddenly Senator Moynihan, the patrician from Hell's Kitchen, brought the class struggle to the Senate floor with two words: unearned income.
He came to the floor prepared to vote to ban acceptance by senators of honoraria. But he found his colleagues prepared to vote something more sweeping -- a strict limit on the amount (about $15,000) of all earned income senators could receive annually.
Mr. Moynihan promptly scribbled an amendment to extend similar limits to unearned income, such as interest and dividends. It passed 51-49. If retained, about one-third of the senators would have to retire, or give away thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars annually.
Of the 49 opponents, how many argued their case? Zero. ''There are, of course, opposing views,'' says Mr. Moynihan sweetly, but with vinegar in the ink of his letter to his colleagues. ''May I note that when no one rose in opposition to my amendment, I offered to present those views.''
Mr. Moynihan is making a foray into an old argument.
On the principle (Brandeis said it) that sunlight is the best disinfectant, Congress decided in the 1970s that all sources of income should be disclosed. But now one kind of income is to be severely limited: earned income from labor. Mr. Moynihan says that if Congress places no limits on ''unearned income'' produced by property, there will be a ''real tilt toward property interests.'' That tilt will shape, in ways contrary to the Founders' intentions, the composition of Congress.
Mr. Moynihan, who writes more books than some of his colleagues read, cites one of the three authors of the basic book of American public philosophy, ''The Federalist Papers.'' Mr. Moynihan (6 feet, 4 inches) is standing on the shoulders of the smallest President, James Madison (5 feet, 4 inches, about 100 pounds).
Before 1776, political philosophers had agreed that if democracy were possible and desirable, it could be so only in a small, homogeneous society without ''factions.'' Madison's revolution in democracy theory had a concise catchism:
What is the worst political evil? Tyranny. To what tyranny are democracies prey? Tyranny of the majority. Solution? Prevent the emergence of a single, stable and potentially tyrannical majority. Generate a rich pluralism that makes possible only shifting, unstable coalitions of minorities.
Regarding factions, Madison said: The more the merrier. Political liberty will be secured by social pluralism -- a saving multiplicity of factions. Hence the need for an ''extensive republic'' (and hence, soon, the Louisiana Purchase). Make room for different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.
The protection of those faculties and that acquiring is ''the first object of government.'' Why? Because people with different economic interests are ''actuated by different sentiments and views'' and pluralism protects freedom.
The Constitution says: ''The senators and representatives shall receive a compensation for their services.'' That provision was, in 1789, revolutionary. It meant laws could be made by all sorts of people, from all walks of life, not just the gentry.
Mr. Moynihan was born in Tulsa, but raised in a rough section of Manhattan, from which he rose to Harvard's faculty, Presidents' Cabinets, ambassadorships and, 14 years ago, the Senate. There, increasingly, he mingles with millionaires. His measure did not cause cleavage along party lines. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, says 30 of the 50 richest senators and representatives are Democrats. Republicans voted 31-13 for Mr. Moynihan.
Mr. Moynihan's measure should be dropped, but so should limits on earned income. Congress should mandate full disclosure but otherwise let members do what they will, and let the voters sift the facts and decide how they feel about them.
Mr. Moynihan's measure has been treated as a professor's jest, one with a pedagogic purpose. It does indeed teach us that we are allowing to develop something like a property qualification for office. This is not funny.