WASHINGTON — Great policy issues are usually the stuff of debate at this brief season between New Year's Day and the president's State of the Union address. There is a plethora of such issues in 1997 - from the perennial question of how to (or whether to) balance the federal budget to enacting a "just" reformation of welfare.
But such matters have been replaced by congressional and White House wrangling over the actions and characters of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton, and their allies. All of this berating and debating over the supposedly lapsed ethics of prominent politicians sounds unusual and alarming. But it isn't. Harvard Prof. Dennis Thompson writes in his recent book, "Ethics In Congress," that "more members of Congress have been investigated and subjected to sanctions for ethical misconduct in the past decade and a half than in the entire previous history of the institution."
The reason for this landslide of ethical investigations and punishments, according to Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution, is not that congressional wickedness is on the increase. Rather, he says, there has been a proliferation of the rules that govern the behavior of House members. "In the 19th century," he adds, "the charges against Speaker Gingrich would never have come up."
Even members as venerable as Daniel Webster openly took money from constituents, corporations, and organizations. It didn't become illegal to bribe a member of Congress until 1853. "It could probably be shown by facts and figures," wrote Mark Twain, "that there is no distinctively native American criminal class except Congress."
More than a century has passed since Twain made his caustic assessment. Today's politicians are, in general, far more honest and upright than those who trod the corridors of the Capitol before them. They are restrained by a mountain of ethical restrictions - more than in any other legislative body in the world. They are further repressed by an irony - the better and more effective Congress becomes, the worse the voting public believes it to be, say scholars like Hess.
ANALYSTS make a distinction between personal and institutional ethics. Personal ethics improve a legislator's moral character, which, in turn, may make a better politician. Institutional ethics impose rules on a whole legislative body to make it as honest and productive as possible.
Thus, in the current ethical quarrels going on in Washington, Gingrich is charged with violating institutional ethics by diverting campaign funds to finance a history course. Although Clinton is not a member of Congress, he is accused of trespassing both institutional and personal ethics - the first, as head of the Democratic Party, in accepting illegal foreign campaign contributions. Second, personal ethics were violated by his alleged approach to Paula Jones.
The effect of ethical lapses - or perceived lapses - on public opinion is devastating. Last December, an annual Gallup Poll evaluated the ethical standards of various professions. Sixty-four percent rated the honesty of pharmacists as "very high." Senate and House members received 15 and 14 percent.
Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics," believes the country is in a state of pessimism that dates back to the 1960s. The pessimism's central theme, she says, "is that the wishes of democracy can be overridden by one or more people operating in secret." The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. were symptoms of this conspiracy. So were Vietnam, Watergate, and President Nixon's resignation.
All of this contributes to the belief that governmental ethics are eroding. "Most of the more sensational news out of Washington over the last 30 years concerns turpitude," adds Ms. Garment. The focus of the public's judgment of congressional ethics is largely on personal scandals. Many analysts believe the end of the gloom described by Garment - and manifest in such phenomenon as low voter turnout - will come when prosecutors, editors, and congressional leaders lose interest in scandal.