Rostenkowski's scandal won't sink health reform


WASHINGTON -- Nobody in his right mind would argue that the indictment of Dan Rostenkowski is not bad news for the Democratic Party and President Clinton.

Republicans already are braying, understandably, about the case as the inevitable product of 40 years of Democratic control of the House.

But the notion that health care reform has been put in dire jeopardy by the absence of one committee chairman is overblown.

It is true that Rostenkowski has demonstrated a remarkable facility as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for forging compromises that can enlist differing Democrats behind common legislative purposes. And the committee is one that will have to approve any health care bill at one point or another in the process.

But it is equally true that the issue is far bigger than Dan Rostenkowski, even if he is a larger-than-life legislative manipulator.

Rostenkowski's successor as chairman of Ways and Means, Sam Gibbons of Florida, may not be a consummate deal-maker but he isn't a potted plant either. And there are other Democrats of influence in the House leadership with a stake in success on health care.

Moreover, there are two other committees in the House and two in the Senate with critical roles to play on the health care issue.

Indeed, many longtime Congress-watchers are convinced that the most significant negotiations may be those conducted among Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, where there appears to be at least the realistic possibility of a bipartisan compromise.

The operative pressure on Congress, however, may be the judgment of members of both parties about the message they want to send their constituents in the midterm elections in November.

Although opinion polls show that President Clinton's plan lacks majority support in the electorate, there is also a majority for some improvements in the system.

Thus, the question is whether incumbents want to claim credit for breaking gridlock on a critical domestic issue or, alternatively, be seen once again as ineffectual and politically driven in refusing to take any action at all.

The answer to that question has been more important than Rostenkowski all along. When Clinton first advanced his proposals in September, there was a strong popular majority for action that would meet his prime goals of universal and comprehensive health insurance protection. But that majority has atrophied -- in part because of the success of the scare tactics used by the health insurance industry and in part because the president has frittered away the political clout he enjoyed last fall.

Most recently the political equation has been altered still again by pervasive fear among incumbents that the voters may be even more hostile to politicians than they were when they turned out President George Bush in 1992, giving the incumbent president only 38 percent of the vote against two opponents, Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

A survey made for CNN immediately after the indictment of Rostenkowski showed, for example, that 51 percent of Americans believe most members of Congress are corrupt, compared to only 41 percent who don't.

When asked about their own member of Congress, voters were less convinced -- 29 percent thought their congressman corrupt; 51 percent did not. But those are hardly encouraging figures for those in power. In this context, the Democrats have the most to fear simply because they have more incumbents at stake.

How this plays out in terms of Republican gains in November depends on several variables. The most obvious is whether the Rostenkowski case goes to trial during the campaign in October so that voters are reminded daily of congressional excess.

But given the history of most such prosecutions, there is at least an even chance the trial won't start before next year. And there still remains at least a chance the case will be settled before it does to trial.

A more critical factor, however, may be who sets the agenda for the campaign. And if Congress passes a health care reform plan Clinton can claim as his own, the Democrats may be able to make a positive case for their performance that will make Dan Rostenkowski appear to be an aberration rather than the distillation of congressional power.

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