Senators and `Constituent Service'

Big campaign contributors often seek to acquire access to the high and mighty. Rarely, however, are politicians observed delivering that bought-and-paid-for access quite so baldly as in the case of Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif. Lincoln's collapse is the largest S&L failure to date. The bailout will cost the taxpayers more than $2 billion. The federal government might have stopped Lincoln's profligate ways two years ago but for five influential senators who have received hefty donations from Mr. Keating, former chairman of Lincoln.

The ``Keating Five'' are Democrats Alan Cranston (California), the majority whip; Dennis DeConcini (Arizona); John Glenn (Ohio); and Donald Riegle (Michigan), Banking Committee chairman; and Republican John McCain (Arizona). Over time, Keating added $1.3 million to their campaign coffers.

In two meetings in April 1987, the senators made a pitch for Lincoln to federal regulators worried about the thrift. The regulators took no action against Lincoln until this spring. The senators deny any impropriety; they say they were simply helping a ``constituent'' get a fair shake, just as they do for countless other people. Two Senate and House committees are investigating.

Perhaps these senators did not, in fact, violate any ethical standards. They evidently twisted no arms, threatened nobody's job or appropriation. Nonetheless, their exertions testify to how money talks in today's Washington. It's preposterous to equate the senators' high-octane intervention on behalf of Lincoln to, say, helping an eligible constituent obtain an entitlement benefit.

These senators from four different states weren't engaged in constituent service so much as contributor service. They were making their time and good offices available to Keating in a way that no man or woman on the street could hope for.

Why? Because campaign costs have gotten so high. Many Senate campaigns today cost upwards of $3 million; so incumbents have to raise an average of $10,000 a week throughout their six-year terms. It's little wonder they have to stroke fat cats like Keating.

The dismaying thing is how easily wealthy donors can get around federal campaign-finance laws. Despite laws that limit individual contributions to $1,000 and PAC contributions to $5,000 for each primary or general election, Keating and his associates funneled $897,000 to Senator Cranston, $234,000 to Senator Glenn, and so on. The rules are evaded by directing ``soft money'' into various political accounts controlled by candidates.

There's been much hand-wringing over the ``legal scandal'' of campaign finance in the past, but the only people who can change the system - members of Congress - are also its beneficiaries. Maybe a well-publicized episode like the ``Keating Five'' will finally shame Congress into remedial action. Even at $2 billion, the lesson would be worth it.

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