Impact of Congressional Scandal

December 16, 1993

Sen. Donald Riegle, D-Mich., surprised colleagues, staff and constituents a few months back by announcing he was retiring. He probably feared he would lose what was expected to be a tough re-election bid next year. Tough because the Senate Ethics Committee had criticized his dealings with now-imprisoned financier Charles Keating Jr.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., has announced his retirement, too. He was also Keating's advocate and beneficiary. Both senators' conduct was said to give "the appearance of being improper," as the Ethics Committee put it. Like many observers, we thought their conduct was improper, and, since their Senate careers have been un-spectacular, we doubt if their absence from the Senate after next year will be mourned.

Another senator who has announced his plan to retire is Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn. His conduct drew an even harsher official condemnation. The full Senate "denounced" him for financial improprieties, then a federal grand jury indicted him, charging he billed the Senate for lodging in his own condominium. A judge threw that indictment out on a technical point, but Senator Durenberger is still not planning to face the voters in 1994.

If there is a moral in these announced retirements it is that while elected officials can get away with a lot, the public does have a sleaze threshold. All three senators read polls that showed they would have a hard time being re-elected.

So will Sen. Bob Packwood, but the Oregon Republican has five years left on his term. Nonetheless the impact of his scandal will have an impact on him. He has become a pariah. He can't go home. His colleagues shun him. And he faces the prospect of censure, expulsion and indictment.

It is hard to say how much impact if any the above will have on Congress or the nation's business. None of the above senators is indispensable. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., isn't either, but he may come pretty close, from President Clinton's point of view. The president needs the assistance of the canny, tough and very influential chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, especially on health care reform. He may be indicted in connection with the House Post Office scandal, and if he is, under the rules of the House Democratic Caucus he would have to give up his chairmanship.

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