They Are Not All `Rascals'

BEFORE he had hardly a bite of his breakfast the Senate Majority Leader was asked why some politically secure members of Congress, like Sens. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, and Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado, were deciding not to run again.

Sen. George Mitchell had been on the Senate floor until quite late the night before. And here he was talking to a group of reporters at an early morning get-together before the start of another demanding day.

The Maine senator spoke, convincingly, of how hard his colleagues work. He is himself known for putting in long hours. "And then," said Mr. Mitchell, "confronted with a high level of criticism by the press and the American people, it's an easy and often attractive alternative not to want to participate anymore. I think it is understandable and human."

"Have you ever had moments when you thought it was time to go back home?" asked another reporter.

"As recently as last night," Mitchell replied. The gathering of nearly 40 journalists laughed. But the majority leader, while smiling slightly, was obviously serious.

"You work 18 hours a day," he said. "You wake up in the morning and you read something in the paper about you that's critical. Which is often not true. Or inaccurate. You go back home and find people angry and upset. So it is understandable."

Mitchell doubtless has his moments when he would prefer to be doing something else. But it was clear that, on balance, he still wants to be where he is - at the top of Congress's power structure.

"There are many disadvantages to this position," he said. "But there are also many great rewards. I can't tell you how rewarding it was to me to see the Clean Air Act become law because, in part, of my efforts."

Since that meeting with Mitchell I've given much thought to what he said. It's troubling.

Public dissatisfaction with Congress is bringing about a sorely needed cleanup. Many bad and dishonest politicians are being swept out of office.

But what we have today - brought to a head by the check-bouncing scandal - is widespread distrust of Congress as an institution and, indeed, of all members of Congress. In this climate of cynicism - one poll shows only 1 percent of the public saying it "trusts" members of Congress - is it any wonder that an outstanding senator like Mitchell might have moments when he's ready to call it quits?

The public has always been unhappy about Congress. Back in the 1950s and 1960s I used to make a lot of speeches to clubs and business groups and at colleges. My subject was government and politics. Afterward, invariably, I heard questions about the integrity of members of Congress.

What bothered people then was the failure of representatives to stick to their promises to voters.

I conceded that such unfulfilled promises sometimes indicated unprincipled actions and breaches of trust. But I also tried to explain that the legislative process called on members of Congress to compromise in order to get anything done.

I don't think I was very persuasive. People wanted it both ways - and they still do. They want those they elect to represent their views. Then when lawmakers refine their positions in order to shape legislation and generate some action on an issue, these officials are criticized. But if they hold tight to their positions and no action emerges, the voters then criticize them - and all of Congress - for not getting anything done. They call it gridlock.

For years the public has felt this latent discontent with Congress. Now it has gone well beyond that. There's anger out there. And it's coming from all parts of the country.

I think the recession has helped bring anti-Congress feelings to the surface. The check-bouncing scandal is a catalyst, upsetting voters from coast to coast. The cry from everywhere is, "Throw the rascals out!" Let's hope that in the process we don't lose more very good public servants - like George Mitchell.

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