Five men, one big task on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 05, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Although Daniel Inouye is one of the Senate's most respected members, his defense of the Keating Five is not likely to -- and should not -- prove persuasive with the Senate Ethics Committee. The Hawaii Democrat has defended embattled colleagues in the past, and he conceded he had not read the details of the case against the five senators accused of using undue influence in behalf of Charles H. Keating.

But Inouye did strike at the fault line in the case against the Keating Five -- the lack of clear Senate standards that define acceptable and unacceptable conduct in objective terms. As one of the members of the committee said privately the other day, "This is tough. There aren't any rules."

Thus, the committee's responsibility is to define proper conduct in the absence of such rules. That assignment may be a difficult one, but it is not impossible. No one would argue that senators and congressmen should not protect the interests of their constituents in cases where those interests may be threatened by a regulatory or administrative agency of the federal government. That's what happens, to cite the most basic example, when some taxpayer stops receiving his Social Security check and appeals to his congressman, who in turn assigns a caseworker to look into the situation.

There is, however, a difference between ordinary constituent services and those rendered to someone who contributed almost $1 million to a senator's political committees, as Keating did to those of Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. And there is a difference between straightening out a bureaucratic mixup over a check and putting the arm on a federal regulator in a sensitive case.

So the members of the committee are being asked, in essence, to apply their knowledge of the way things work in politics and to decide when conduct crosses an ethical line. And it would be nonsense to say they cannot make such a distinction. The rules may not define improper conduct but people as politically sophisticated as Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, the Democratic chairman of the committee, or Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican, are quite capable of recognizing such conduct when they see it.

That is not to say, however, that it is going to be easy. The evidence disclosed so far seems to indicate that Cranston and Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona were somewhat more aggressive in their efforts in behalf of Keating than were Sens. Don Riegle of Michigan, John McCain of Arizona and John H. Glenn of Ohio. There has been evidence, for example, that a fund-raiser for Cranston, Joy Jacobson, held meetings with Keating and his associates in which they discussed their complaints about federal regulators. She obviously wasn't there to offer legal advice.

Inouye attempted to cast the whole episode as essentially routine. "I see nothing improper, possibly vigorous, but not improper," he said. In the past, he added, "it was considered a virtue or quality of a senator or any legislator to be a fighter." And the Democrat from Hawaii tried to depict the situation as a test of the system.

"I believe that what is on trial here is not the five colleagues of mine but the U.S. Senate and, for that matter, the Congress of the United States," he said. The implication was that to take action against the Keating Five would be to yield to the pressures of the climate caused by the savings and loan scandal and make scapegoats of "men of unimpeachable character" doing their duty for constituents.

Inouye is half right. The Senate is on trial but only in the sense that the Ethics Committee is being confronted with the necessity for distinguishing between proper and improper behavior.

The constituents of the Keating Five seem to have decided -- at least tentatively -- that the extraordinary efforts made for the S&L operator were not the kind of thing any of them might expect. And they seem to have decided that, of course, there was a connection with campaign contributions. Those findings are implicit in the opinion polls that have made it plain, for instance, that Cranston was at the end of his political career even before he decided against seeking another term in 1992.

The Ethics Committee shouldn't be expected to follow the opinion polls. But neither can it accept the notion that the absence of specific standards means a judgment cannot be made. It's a tough job, but nobody ever promised them a rose garden.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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