Congressmen say chorus of complaints is bad rap

November 04, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It was just another local television news segment, this one about neighborhood efforts to rid the city's Logan Circle area of its rampant prostitution traffic.

But then, a resident complained that the prostitution problem had been exacerbated by a stream of congressmen driving past in search of Friday night "dates." That sent Representative Vic Fazio, D-Calif., through the roof.

"I don't know what he was thinking -- or what the station was thinking when they put him on," said Mr. Fazio, still steaming at the memory. "I called them on it, and they yanked it from their 11 p.m. broadcast."

But changing the public's dim view of Congress is not so easily effected -- a realization blackening an already dark mood on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers say they feel victimized by the continuing torrent of criticism aimed at them and the institution in which they serve.

"It's the worst I've seen it in my 17 years here," said Representative Bill Gradison, R-Ohio. "Whenever we get together in the cloakroom for a sandwich and a Coke, it really dominates what everyone talks about."

The latest manifestation of the public's collective anger will be expressed Tuesday if, as expected, voters in Washington state endorse the nation's most restrictive term limit proposal, one that would slap an expiration date on the careers of both state and federal elected officials.

Whether or not the referendum withstands an expected court challenge, the prospect that it will pass, coming on the heels of a series of public embarrassments, has reinforced a siege mentality in the halls of Congress.

After a decade of spiraling deficits, divided government and scandals in the executive and legislative branches, many polls peg the public's cynicism about Congress at an all-time high.

Lawmakers say they are feeling the effects of that cynicism -- compounded by the latest scandals over bounced checks at the House bank and unpaid tabs at the House restaurant -- at a time when they face a particularly edgy election year, with the economy in the doldrums and state legislatures proceeding to ++ redraw congressional districts.

"There's a unique kind of poison blowing through this chamber ** right now," said Representative Edward F. Feighan, D-Ohio. Agreed Representative Charles Wilson, D-Texas: "It's come to a head in the last few weeks."

The malaise is not so apparent in the Senate, where members enjoy six-year terms and an intrinsic prestige that helps carry them past the complaints of the Congress-bashers.

The story is different in the House, where all members must stand for re-election every two years and, consequently, find themselves in a kind of perpetual campaign.

"It was one thing when you could make the case that you were doing great things or, at least, taking small steps toward solving some of society's problems. Then you could say it was all worth it," said Mr. Gradison. "But when you lose even that psychic income, the question becomes, why stay?"

Last month, three House members asked themselves that very question and decided to leave. Representatives Don J. Pease and Dennis E. Eckart, both Ohio Democrats, announced their PTC impending departures from Congress. Representative Al Swift, D-Wash., announced his impending retirement at the end of the next Congress, in 1994.

All pointed to various personal factors that influenced their decisions to leave, but they also echoed the very dissatisfactions their colleagues have been griping about.

"I'm 56 years old and I had to call my parents and tell them that I didn't bounce any checks," said Mr. Swift. "That's demeaning."

Mr. Pease said that after he announced his decision not to run for re-election, scores of colleagues came up to him to offer their congratulations, suggesting that they, too, were considering whether to quit now or in another two years. Of particular interest, Mr. Pease thought, were the comments of a dozen or so who commended him for his "courage."

"Now, I thought, what's so courageous about quitting?" he said. "But, you know, I think it reflects the fact that a lot of people here are not terribly happy, that they'd just as soon get out, but they're just afraid to.

"Either they're not sure what kind of job they'll have when they get out, or they're not sure if they're ready to leave the limelight, or they're not sure what they want to do with the rest of their lives."

Privately, many lawmakers agree with Mr. Pease's assessment. "It's getting harder and harder" to justify running for re-election, said Mr. Fazio, who serves as vice-chairman of the Democratic caucus and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But many are reluctant to telegraph their uncertainties to the public for fear of encouraging political opposition and, just possibly, ending their political careers before they're ready.

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