Clean 'em Out, He Says

RICHARD REEVES

April 23, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- Be warned: C. W. Griffin is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. The author of the best-selling ''Manual of Built-Up Roof Systems'' looked down this time to write about politicians and political journalists in ''Cleaning Out Congress: The Case for Term Limits.''

You will probably not hear much more about this little book. Mr. Griffin's engineering manuals are published by McGraw-Hill and are handy to have if you are designing a school or something like that. But this one, about building a country, he had to publish himself from his home in Phoenix, printing 1,000 copies, of which 850 or so are almost certainly destined to end up in the back of a closet someplace.

I have one, though, and I intend to keep it nearby. It is a book of common sense, based on a clear-eyed and not particularly well-informed view of American politics. Mr. Griffin knows one thing but he knows it well: The race of representative democracy was not meant to be a marathon of tired and cynical old men. It should be a relay, with the batons of power passed on and on again to fresh runners.

The book begins by mocking me and my peers, political writers, for ignoring the debasement of language in politics. What used to be called ''influence,'' as in influence-peddling, is now called ''access.'' What used to be called ''contributors'' are now called ''constituents'' -- so what used to be called bribery can be called ''constituent service.''

Mr. Griffin, in fact, quotes the original ''Common Sense,'' written by Tom Paine in 1776, early in the book: ''That the elected might never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors, prudence will point out the propriety of having elections often; because the elected might by that means return and mix again with the general body of electors in a few months . . .''

The idea was picked up by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton 12 years later in the Federalist Papers.

The point the Founding Fathers were trying to get across is this: Throw the bums out! Do it regularly for their own good -- and ours.

And the best way to get them out is by term limits. If eight years was good enough for George Washington, eight or 12 is enough for bums providing constituent service to the likes of Charles Keating.

As one might expect from an engineer, Mr. Griffin challenges the mathematics of politics and journalism. He argues that reporters, particularly in Washington, come to identify with the people they cover, joining what he calls ''The Attila-the-Hun-Wasn't-Such-a-Bad-Guy School of Moral Philosophy.''

Specifically, he attacks writers who believe that congressional incumbents' re-election rate has always been more than 90 percent. ''Completely ignorant,'' he says of pundits (he names names) who do not understand standard statistical analysis. Re-election rates, he shows, were below 80 percent as recently as the 1950s -- when television and big money began seeping into the streams of democracy.

Mr. Griffin also goes after the argument that you can't buy a congressman for a lousy $1,000. Of course you can; political action committees do it every day, every year.

Politicians come cheap when they have no other prospects outside their Capitol careers. They are men and women, mostly men, desperate to keep their job, their perks, their health plan and all the rest. And it takes money to fend off challengers.

Crushing more numbers, Mr. Griffin concludes: ''Contributions are a trivial cost of the nation's most profitable business: the purchase of congressional votes.''

How profitable? A return on investment of 100,000 percent, he concludes. That figure is based on the $100 million that PACs contribute during congressional elections -- almost every penny to incumbents -- and more than $100 billion in annual special-interest subsidies in the federal budget and off-budget federal spending.

So, what would he do? Organize the equivalent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. ''Our toleration for our pervasively corrupt, malfunctioning Congress resembles our former toleration of drunk drivers,'' he concludes. ''We have only started the arduous struggle of removing drunken drivers from the nation's highways, and this start was accomplished despite the inaction and apathy of the nation's politicians'' -- and now we should get those politicians off the highways of their own ambition, their career tracks.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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