Acting on ethics in Congress

Last year the House of Representatives expelled a member for the first time since Civil War days. Now the Senate is recommended to do the same by its ethics committee.

Considering Congress's past failures to discipline its own -- the House did not even expel its participants in the notorious Credit Mobilier bribery scandal -- the current signs of resolve on dealing with convicted bribetakers are welcome. But they need to be accompanied by a conveyed sense of congressional ethics higher than simple legality.

With all the special-interest legislation now being passed and contemplated, it is especially important the public have confidence that Congress does not tolerate what amounts to bribery even though not prosecuted as such. A new wrinkle in this category recently appeared in a political group's promise to advertise on behalf of a member if he voted a certain way.

Thus members of the Senate committee were on the right track to insist that their action on Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. has been independent of the criminal proceedings by which he was convicted in the Abscam bribery case. This ought to mean that the committee would be alert to any wrongdoing in the future without waiting for outside legal prodding. In this instance it called for a full Senate vote only after a judge's ruling on Mr. Williams's appeal.

Three senators in the past have been convicted while in office (between 1905 and 1922). In the 1970s alone, two dozen members of the House were charged with various offenses, five of them being cleared and the others pleading guilty or being convicted.

It might be argued that such a record sounds no worse than what might be expected in the general public. But surely the highest standards should be expected in the governing bodies.

With no discredit to all the senators and representatives who scrupulously maintain their own conduct, the two houses have seemed to tolerate corruption for too long, despite recent upsurges of ethical concern.

History shows a laudable willingness to give the broadest freedom to individual expression by members, even when this becomes obstreperous. The concentration has rightly been on wrongful acts. Thus in the middle of the last centry Sen. Lazarus Powell of Kentucky was not expelled for presiding over a pro-Southern rally -- but Sens. Trusten Polk and Waldo Johnson of Missouri were expelled when they were found to have taken part in acts against the union.

It is sensitivity to propriety of action that must be fostered. Congress was founded on such assumptions, as a passage from "The Federalist" should remind today's representatives of the people on Capitol Hill:

"As there is a degree o depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in higher degree than any other form."

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