Five years ago, Rep. Patricia Schroeder began compiling a list of Reagan administration officials who were accused of ethical violations. Mrs. Schroeder's ``sleaze list,'' as she calls it, has grown to 242 names. ``Sleaze'' now threatens to become a cutting issue in the 1988 campaign between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis.
The American people ``will hear quite a lot'' about corruption in the Reagan-Bush White House, predicts Mrs. Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat. Voters will be asking ``why Bush didn't open his mouth'' for the past seven years when all this unsavory behavior was going on, she says.
The issue is a delicate one for Vice-President Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee. If he lashes out at dishonesty and greed in the executive branch, it implies criticism of his political tutor, Ronald Reagan. If he pulls his punches, he looks soft on sleaze.
The greatest concern at the moment centers on Attorney General Edwin Meese III, whose affairs are under investigation by a special prosecutor. A report from the prosecutor is expected this month.
Republicans insist that the ethics issue hasn't damaged their '88 election chances so far - but they are on guard.
``People don't think that George Bush is a crook,'' says William Feltus, a Republican consultant. ``The reason the issue doesn't work on Bush is you can't label him as being a sleazy guy. He's not a back-room kind of guy. He's all natural fibers.''
Edward S. DeBolt, another Republican consultant, says the American public ``knows Bush is not responsible for Meese. Bush had never met Meese until 1980. So to blame Bush would be really reaching, just as it would be to blame Dukakis for every mayor of Boston who has gone to jail.''
But two top Bush campaign officials, Robert Teeter and Peter Teeley, put some distance recently between their candidate and the attorney general. Mr. Teeley, the communications director, calls Mr. Meese a ``liability.''
Mr. Bush also broke his silence on the ethics issue during the past few days. Noting that the special prosecutor's report will soon be out, Bush said: ``You ought to let the system work. ... Fair play dictates that the system go forward and make a determination.''
But he also noted: ``I must say I'm troubled by some of these allegations. ... It seems to me that the Justice Department has to be above reproach. And it's an agency that has special responsibilities.''
Every recent president - from Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter - has grappled with the problem of subordinates who misbehave. While some critics charge that the Reagan White House is the worst in recent memory, the public takes a less partisan view.
Larry Hansen, director of the US-88 election project for the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, says the public sees Washington's ethical problems as part of a larger picture.
``When we conducted focus groups in the South, people talked about the disintegration of the moral fabric of the country,'' Mr. Hansen says. ``Voters saw Washington's problems as symptomatic of a much more pervasive pattern, a decline in values.''
Jim Shriver, an analyst with the Gallup poll, says voters see little difference between the parties on ethics. A February poll found that 41 percent of the voters think the Reagan White House has a worse record on honesty than others, but 31 percent say the Reagan record is better. The rest said the record was about the same as that of earlier presidents.
Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, says pinning an ethics charge on Bush would be difficult ``unless someone proves he is personally tainted.'' As for Meese, he is ``Ronald Reagan's man,'' says Mr. From.
Congresswoman Schroeder says Governor Dukakis seems certain to raise the ethics issue. But she suggests the best tactic would be to put a positive spin on it.
``He needs to go affirmative,'' she says. ``Talk about the need to restore confidence in government, and restore excellence. And lay out his credentials. He doesn't have to name names.''
She says that Democrats should draw a contrast between Mr. Reagan, who put political loyalists in key posts, and Mr. Dukakis, who could vow to put the best available minds to work in the Justice Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency.
If the ethics issue turns into a mud fight, Republicans say they may return mudball for mudball. While Democrats blame Republicans for what goes on in the executive branch, there is enough unethical behavior in the Democrat-controlled Congress and in Democrat-controlled Massachusetts to offset it, Republican strategists assert.