Old reformers face ouster now Woes of post-Watergate group open House to new challengers

April 18, 1992|By Clifford Krauss | Clifford Krauss,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- With the Watergate scandal still hanging in the air, Stephen J. Solarz, Thomas J. Downey and a slew of freshman Democrats came to Congress 17 years ago to clean it up and turn it inside out.

Now these one-time young reformers are senior members of the House, and many of them are finding that their careers are caught up in a new scandal of their own, the House bank affair.

The story of the 26 remaining members of the freshman Class of1974 demonstrates that the institution can swallow up even the most reform-minded members.

Their energy and votes helped rework the decaying seniority and committee systems and end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. But their primary interests were issues, so they stopped short of rearranging an antiquated internal-administration system, or cutting the perquisites that U.S. citizens eventually found so objectionable.

"Who thought about the bank?" asked Mr. Solarz, the Brooklyn Democrat who wrote 743 overdrafts and overdrew his account beyond his next month's salary 30 out of 39 months audited. The long-standing policy, members say, was not to overdraw the accounts by more than their next month's salary.

"We were interested in reforming the institution to make public policy," Mr. Solarz said. "The only thing we thought about the House restaurant was the lousy food."

At the same time, these members had another, perhaps less noble goal: modernizing electoral politics. They helped introduce political action committees and expanded the use of the franking privilege to blanket mailings.

In the end, these steps helped contribute to a veneer of slickness that alienated constituents and helped turn the House bank affair into a scandal far larger than it might otherwise have seemed.

Several members of the class now say their experience should serve as a valuable reminder to the 100 or more freshmen expected to take office next year. The latter are also running against the institution in which they wish to serve.

"All reform movements end up as a struggle for power," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., one of the 92 original members of the group elected in 1974. "The purity of motive somehow becomes diminished as the arena loads up with carcasses."

Many of them suckled on the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, these graying men and women now hold some of the most important posts in Congress. Not surprisingly, they have become more conservative over the years.

They also had some of the worst records at the now-defunct House bank.

Several Democratic members of the class said that while their objective in changing the House was to make it stronger to balance the expanding powers of the presidency, the new generation of mostly Republican advocates of change is pushing to weaken the institution because it is controlled by Democrats.

Referring to the insurgent freshman Republicans who succeeded in publicizing the House bank scandal, Mr. Downey said:

"I'd like to think that the Gang of Seven will eventually get serious about the problems of the country. If the next Congress consumes itself in the internal affairs of the House, it will not address the problems the people sent us here to work on."

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