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A Plan for Cleaner Politics

Congress should trade a pay hike for finance and voter-registration reform

By Mark GreenMark Green is the author of ``Who Runs Congress.'' He was the 1986 Democratic nominee for the US Senate from New York. / July 3, 1989

DEAR Speaker Foley, Congratulations. As expected, though not as planned, you're the Speaker. Unfortunately, your ascension results from a congressional oil spill as challenging as Exxon's.

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How can you clean up after the Wright and Coelho disasters? How do you respond to the crescendo of Republican attacks on ``Democratic corruption''? (For the moment, put aside the humorous notion that the party of Meese, Deaver, and North, the party whose President vetoed the `88 Ethics Act, the party of today's HUD scandals can make any accusations about ethics.)

As both a proud Democrat and an ethics activist, may I suggest one answer that would help restore trust in government, expand the franchise, and get our party off the defensive? Namely, in exchange for a modest and recorded-vote pay increase, Congress would enact long-needed reforms of political action committees (PACs), campaign finance, honoraria, conflicts-of-interest, and voter registration.

Clearly, people of good faith seem divided on the issue of Congress and ethics. Rep. Tom Downey denounces ``ethical McCarthyism;'' yet Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause attacks ``institutionalized bribery.'' Who's right? Both are.

It is outrageous that, in the post-Hart-Biden-Tower-Wright-Coelho atmosphere, charges become tantamount to convictions. Such trial-by-press could cashier talented people out of public life, and deter others from ever running in the first place.

At the same time, as Mr. Wertheimer implies, the scandal of Congress is not what's illegal but legal - i.e., the ``smoking gun'' is not so much third-rate burglaries or arms diversions but a system of ``legal graft'' whereby good people are pressured into bad acts. Jim Wright, for example, was accused of accepting a gift from someone with an interest in legislation. But isn't that usually true of a speech honorarium (if the member keeps the money)?

Sacrificial lions like Mr. Wright and Tony Coelho, then, are not the real problem on Capitol Hill. Rather, it's too much money and too few voters. First, after years of receiving thousands of dollars from economic elites, how many members have the courage to bite the hand that funds them? Too often they favor contributors over constituents. And second, a Congress that abolished poll taxes and literacy tests still tolerates a voting-registration maze introduced a century ago to discourage the participation of minorities and immigrants. The result today: the lowest voting turn-out among Western democracies, as people who earn over $50,000 vote on average 50 percent more than those who earn $5,000.

Some commentators belittle these issues as trivial and diverting. But since process shapes policy, a tainted congressional process is not a trivial but a primary concern. We can't ever achieve sound defense or environmental policies, for example, if contractors and polluters have so much more say than taxpayers and consumers.

Given these problems of ethics and access, and given the courage of Chinese protesters quoting Thomas Jefferson, many of us wonder where are our marchers for democracy? In fact, millions of citizens in thousands of civic groups have indeed won many reforms at the local and state levels.

Speaker Foley, let's apply their lessons to our national legislature. To advance democracy and ethics, here is an omnibus proposal that should be appealing both to defensive Democrats who believe in ethics reform and to Republicans frustrated by their permanent minority status.