The Real Scandal in Congress

GEORGE F. WILL

April 26, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The House banking affair is more a debacle than a scandal, involving more ineptitude than peculation. But as some members of Congress try to mollify constituents, they demonstrate the really scandalous side of modern government.

Consider two Georgians, Charles Hatcher, a six-term Democrat from a mostly rural district, and Newt Gingrich, an eight-term Republican from suburban Atlanta.

Mr. Hatcher, author of 819 overdrafts, was listed among the 22 worst abusers. But is he in trouble back home? Hardly. Guess who is chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Peanuts and Tobacco?

He was the primary author of the 1990 reauthorization of the Peanut Program, by which the government supports peanut prices. The government also restricts imports, lest Americans get their hands on inexpensive peanuts. If there is an unsold glut of peanuts at the artificially high price, government intervenes to buy them. This madness is hugely popular with Georgia farmers, their employees and suppliers and truckers.

The Washington Post's William Booth went down to Dawson, Ga., and was told by the owner of a farm supply business, "I don't think the peanut farmer can afford to lose Charlie Hatcher." That small-town businessman probably fancies himself a conservative and probably looks askance at Washington payments that create a dependent welfare class in cities.

Mr. Gingrich bounced 22 checks, and critics have begun to call him the sort of names he has made a career of calling others -- a supple, nimble Beltway insider soggy with welfare state decadence and out of touch with plain folks. So he has taken strong action.

He has shed the embarrassing opulence of the limousine and driver that are traditional perks of the House whips of both parties. (Mr. Gingrich's counterpart, David Bonior of Michigan, refused to accept those perks when he was elected in 1991.) Mr. Gingrich's $60,540-a-year driver was an armed detective who doubled as one of Washington's most coveted, because most status-conferring, perks: a bodyguard. The driver's name is George Awkward. Really.

Now Mr. Gingrich is urging voters to pick him rather than his opponent in the Republican primary, for this reason: "If you had the choice between the No. 2 ranking Republican in the House, or you can have a freshman who doesn't have any idea who the Cabinet members are, has never met any of them and has never worked with the president, which one do you think can do more for Cobb County?"

Mr. Gingrich's plea to voters is: Prefer me because I am a well-wired, pork-producing, career operator who will unsleepingly serve your appetites. His notion of proper representation may save his career. However, his career as scourge of the congressional status quo is over.

TTC In 1774 Edmund Burke spoke differently to the Bristol voters who had just elected him to Parliament. He rejected the popular theory that representatives are obligated to obey "instructions" from constituents. He said he was being sent to London, not a foreign capital. He was being sent to Parliament, not to a gathering of hostile ambassadors. A representative should not merely help constituents get what they want, he should encourage them to want what they ought to want. And if they do not, he should hew to his judgment about the nation's, not their parochial, interests. "Parliament," he said, "is a deliberative assembly."

So should Congress be. Mr. Gingrich promises to participate, calculate and negotiate, but not deliberate. He promises to participate in the Washington bazaar, to calculate how best to maximize Cobb County's interests, to negotiate for that outcome. But not to deliberate, meaning discuss and reason, in Congress. That is not applicable to Mr. Gingrich's promise, so dismally normal in Congress, to bring home the bacon to Cobb County.

The 1770s are a long time distant from the 1990s and Bristol is far from Cobb County. But those distances of time and space are small compared with the moral distance that separates the austere declaration of independence that Burke delivered to Bristol's voters and the promise of servility that Mr. Gingrich laid at the feet of Cobb County.

Mr. Gingrich has become the quintessential congressional careerist, perpetuating his career by promising to make parochial interests the beneficiaries of the national government's myriad subsidizing and regulating activities. Hitherto, Mr. Gingrich has made strong arguments for term limits. Now he is one.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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