Charges of bribery were hanging over numerous senators and representativs as members of Congress went back to face their constituents before the election. The allegations reached a total of $9 million, striking Cabinet members, the vice-president, a vice- presidential nominee, and -- but wait, our computer must have made a mistake. This information comes from 1872, not 1980. Every schoolchild used to know about the Credit Mobilier scandal that broke during the '72 campaign and lingered into the new year. A few maybe knew that bribery raised its head as early as 1796, the third presidential election year, when even founding father James Madison had to fend off bribers trying to influence the granting of land.
We mention all this not to condone the bribery and other elements of scandal that haunt this year' s Congress as members go before the folks back home -- but to offer some perspective on the matter. This year's congressional scandals, so hard on the heels of last year's and the year before's, are not unique to our time. The United States has suffered them in the past and gone on to more admirable seasons. Things might get bad enough for Mark twain to joke that "it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distiinctly American criminal class except Congress." But the majority of congressmen, like the majority of Americans they represent, have stayed within accepted bounds.
There is at least one difference this year, however. The lapses being spotlighted now -- inluding drunkenness and homosexual soliciting as well as political corruption -- come during a campaign in which the state of American morality has become an issue in itself. Such anomalies have occurred as a perfect "moral" report card being given by one group to a congressman implicated in the Abscam bribery inquiry; and a morals charge being made against a congressman heading another group stressing morality.
Congressmen can hardly be surprised to find a certain cynicism among the people. It seems evident that all of the congressional legislation about ethics has not been a means to stamping out individual wrongdoing, anymore than the national panoply of law and regualtion has been enough to stamp out nongovernmental crime and vice.
Yet cynicism is not justified. Today's scandals are accompanied by an increased disposition -- both in and out of Congress -- not to tolerate them. Indeed, the whole impulse to bolster a sense of basic morality in the nation is uncynical in that it bespeaks a belief that something can be done.
The exploitation of this impulse by groups with narrow political ends is a danger to be guarded against. But individual Americans can contribute to heightening the nation's moral sensitivity through the way they live their own lives and judge public issues.
As congress responds to such a tone in the land, fewer members are likely to create those clouds trailing their colleagues home at election time.