Congress: More Corrupt Than 20 Years Ago?

June 05, 1994|By SUSAN BAER

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Last year, the caretakers of the Capitol blasted clean the corroding statue of "Freedom" that is perched above the imposing domed building.

Today, the rest of the once-revered institution is finding itself in need of some serious cleanup and repair.

Scandal has returned to the grand marble steps of the U.S. Congress with this week's indictment of Chicago Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.

And although the accusations against the powerful congressman are unproven at this point, they still seem to have succeeded in confirming the public's worst suspicions about an already scarred and battered body of government.

Polls taken this week suggested that the majority of Americans believe that most members of Congress are corrupt, and that they furthermore believe that Congress is more corrupt today than it was 20 years ago.

But former members, including some who left under the cloud of the House banking scandal of 1992, as well as congressional watchdogs, believe that there is today a heightened sensitivity among members regarding their behavior.

They believe that, while the lax rules of Congress, the perquisites and privileges still lead to occasional abuses of power, the actions outlined in the Rostenkowski indictment are atypical.

What is so striking about the list of charges against Mr. Rostenkowski, says former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, "is that it stands in contrast to the standards members are setting for themselves now."

Mr. Weber, who left Congress in 1992 after 12 years (and 125 overdrafts on the now-closed House bank), believes that, a decade ago, members were more cavalier, were in fact aggressive, about racking up the free lunches, the trips to Barbados, whatever perks or privileges they could find.

He believes that that behavior was fostered by the great respect and admiration, even awe, the public once bestowed on elected officials and the institution.

"People bowed and scraped a little too much in the old days," says the former House Republican. "We did have an imperial Congress in terms of the way the public treated elected officials. So the members thought, 'I must deserve all these goodies.' "

In the past several years, he says -- especially since the fall of former House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 over ethical questions -- the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with a public that has "almost no regard for the institution."

The days of the imperial Congress -- and, thus, members expecting royal treatment -- are over, says Mr. Weber. "The two go hand-in-hand."

Former New York Rep. Stephen Solarz says the increased scrutiny today deters abuses of power. "If anything, people are excessively cautious," says Mr. Solarz, who lost his seat in 1992, at least in part because he was found to have abused banking privileges with 743 overdrafts. "They don't want to be snake-bit. With everyone looking over their shoulder and with the press eager to expose miscreants, most people bend over backwards to stay within the rules."

But even staying within the rules -- when the rules are as arcane, loosely defined and unenforced as some of them are -- often results in unethical, albeit legal, behavior, Congress watchers say.

"When there is not specific guidance on how to relate to certain perks and certain uses of money, you run the risk of seeing members stretch that to the limit," says Greg Kubiak, author of "The Gilded Dome," a book about Congress.

"Laws are going to get strained and pushed until they get broken."

Similarly, Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, believes that the widespread corruption in Congress "mostly has to do with things that are legal and sanctified, but are still corrupt in the public's mind. . . . What better evidence do we need than all the people caught up in the House banking scandal?"

Indeed, before the House bank was shut down two years ago, there were no clear rules against overdrafts there. Without much regulation, 325 former and sitting House members had overdrawn their accounts anywhere from one to nearly 1,000 times in a three-year period.

But Ms. Miller and other congressional observers believe that campaign financing -- with special interests allowed to contribute large sums of money to candidates in hopes of buying future influence and favors -- is the premier avenue for institutionalized corruption on Capitol Hill.

"It leads to a lot of members losing touch with reality, starting to feel they deserve certain kinds of perks and privileges without realizing what those perks and privileges look like to the outside world," says Bob Schiff, staff attorney for Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

Still, even such critics say there are signs that the culture of permissiveness that has long pervaded Capitol Hill -- what Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause calls "a culture of lax rules and lax enforcement of rules" -- is beginning to change.

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