Washington — Two days after the cover blew off the FBI's "Operation Abscam," the House of Representatives met for an arcane parliamentary ritual -- one which is at the very heart of the allegations that immigration favors are bought and sold on Capitol Hill.
In the space of a few minutes, with the chamber almost deserted, the House passed a pair of one-sentence-long bills expediting the naturalization of two aliens, postponed action on two others, and effectively killed a fifth measure.
None of the pieces of private-relief legislation involved rich Arab sheikhs, such as the mythical one invented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to offer bribes to congressmen, but the machine-like handling and the yawning indifference give an inkling of the public vacuum in which the process operates -- and its vulnerability to abuse.
Such private bills -- tailored to suit a private individual or interest, as distinguished from the broader "public" bills with which most Americans probably presume their Congress occupies itself -- are rated by congressional observers among the oldest, most corruption-enshrouded, yet least-known legislative institutions on Capitol Hill.
But the unfolding "Abscam" controversy promises to focus rare public attention on them.
Six of the seven lawmakers implicated in the FBI "sting" operation are alleged to have accepted -- or agreed to accept -- bribes of up to $50,000. In return, they allegedly promised to help the imaginary Sheikh Kambir Abdul Rahman immigrate to the United States, chiefly by introducing private immigrationbills on his behalf.
No such bill ever was dropped into the legislative hopper, but probably not for any fear of public exposure. In the last Congress, the House alone was inundated with 667 private immigration bills, and 139 of them ground their way, virtually unnoticed, into law.
Most granted relief from rigid US immigration laws in individual hardship cases -- typically alien spouses, widows, and adoptive children of American citizens.
Despite this cumbersome, case-by-case approach and its scandal-checkered history, no one has yet come up with a more expeditious and corruption-proof alternative to cranking out scores of private immigration bills during every Congress.
At the turn of the century, private laws outnumbered public laws by a rate of up to 8 to 1. Procedural revisions gradually have whittled down the workload, but the venerable private bill remains as much a part of Jimmy Carter's 96th Congress as George Washington's First Congress.
In recent years it has generated a steady one-fifth of all the laws Congress has passed, most of them dealing with immigration cases.
Yet the continued use of private immigration bills has meant continued pressures from anguished immigrants, and their lawyers and lobbyists, to get such bills introduced.
Accusations about payoffs to lawmakers for private immigration bills have circulated in Washington for years. A California congressman once alleged that some of his colleagues' law firms routinely charged from $500 to $1,000 to arrange for such a bill.
A flurry of 700 private immigration bills in the late 1960s to help ship-jumping Chinese seamen remain in this country produced allegations that several senators or their aides had been given gifts and campaign contributions for intoducing the bills.
A few years later, in 1976, Rep. Henry J. Helstoski (D) of New Jersey was indicted on charges of soliciting and accepting bribes of more than $8,700 to sponsor immigration bills for Chileans Argentinians.
The House Ethics Committee has been independently investigating possible fraud over the introduction of immigration measures by an undisclosed number of the same congressmen who have been implicated in the "Abscam" affair.
Will the new charges spur reform of private immigration bills?
Moves already are under way to shift from Capitol Hill some of the most common types of hardship immigration cases -- and generators of private bills.
Reacting to a deluge of adoption bills, the last Congress loosened the immigration laws to allow Americans to adopt more than the previous limit of two children from overseas.
Similar legislation now in pending to let the US attorney general waive minor drug violations in immigration cases, thus eliminating the need for the potential immigrant to seek a private bill.
A package of 20 revisions in the immigration laws, which would reduce the need for private bills, is being studied in the House.