FBI 'sting' jolts Congress out of ethics complacency

After months of official backsliding and public apathy, suddenly there is concern once again in the United States over congressional ethics. But it has come, as so often in the past, only in the stunned aftermath of the appearance of a major scandal.

This time the impetus is the allegation that a US senator and seven representatives may have accepted bribes from Federal Bureau of Investigation agents posing as representatives of an Arab sheikh.

The amount of money involved -- reportedly nearly $700,000 -- gives it the potential dimensions of the largest corruption probe ever mounted on Capitol Hill.

The ethics committee in one chamber, the House of Representatives, already has been quietly investigating some of the charges for months, and now will broaden its inquiry. Its counterpart in the Senate, having revised its procedures just last week, is expected soon to open a probe of its own.

The lawmakers, allegedly ensnared by a "sting" operation conducted by the FBI here over the past year and a half, are implicated chiefly in accepting money and other favors for introducing bills allowing foreigners to immigrate to the United States. No formal charges have been filed.

The large-scale congressional investigations that evidently lie ahead would be the first major ones since the probe -- coincidentally authorized by the House three years ago this week -- of South Korean influence-buying and the investigation of charges of financial mismanagement against Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D) of Georgia last year.

The outcomes of both heavily publicized inquiries were anticlimactically mild. The House reprimanded three members over "Koreagate," and the Senate "denounced" Senator Talmadge.

Since then, interest in congressional ethics has conspicuously flagged -- both among lawmakers and their constituents.

Congress last year enacted no significant new ethics-in- government laws and, in fact, softened several that had been passed in the wave of reform that followed the Watergate scandal.

Lawmakers loosened restrictions on former government officials who go to work for private companies that do business with the agencies that used to employ them. The Senate postponed for four years its self-imposed limit on senators' outside incomes and quashed another limit on senators' use of unspent office funds.

A New Hampshire congressman's annual questionnaire a few months ago found congressional ethics rated as a priority issue by a mere 2 percent of his constituents.

But such disinterest may be quickly dispelled by the surfacing of new evidence of corruption on Capitol Hill.

"There is a burden on every member of Congress to restore confidence in government," runs a typical reaction from startled lawmakers, this one from freshman Sen. John W. Warner (R) of Virginia.

The resulting determination to re-polish the tarnished congressional image -- with an election just nine months away -- is believed likely to buoy the prospects of ethics-related bills arduously working their way through the legislative mill.

Among them:

* A long-elusive tightening of disclosure requirements for the now largely invisible world of Washington lobbying. Legislation awaits action by the full House this year.

* A limit on the amount of money allowed to be contributed to House candidates by the increasingly influential "political action committees" of corporations, labor unions, and other interest groups. The curb squeaked through the House last year but is stalled in the Senate by the threat of a filibuster.

The legislative accessory to the current scandal -- immigration bills for private individuals -- may even spur reform of this hoary Capitol Hill device with a long history of abuse. Thousands of these bills -- private laws to help aliens, often hardship cases, escape immigration restrictions -- have been introduced in each recent two-year Congress, with minimum legislative scrutiny.

The process has been punctuated with periodic accusations of impropriety. Three years ago, then-Congressman Henry Helstoski (D) of New Jersey was indicted on bribery charges over bills aiding Chilean and Argentine aliens.

Allegations 10 years ago over a flurry of such bills on behalf of Chinese seamen involved, among others, Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey -- the lone senator so far implicated in the present investigation.

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