The $mell of Money

THE corrupting smell of money has pervaded the Washington atmosphere more than usual lately. Having been blown over by public outrage at a proposed 51 percent pay raise, members of Congress have decided not to give up their special-interest bribes - oops, make that ``honorariums'' for speeches.

Not to worry, though. With other sources of outside income, most of them already make more than the $135,000 they would have gotten not counting the public speaking fees. So scraping along on tuna casseroles and the $89,500-per-year salary they'll continue to make (more than what 99 percent of Americans earn) shouldn't be too big a problem.

The sad part is, things turned out exactly the opposite of what they should have. A fair raise with much stricter controls on outside income is what should have happened. Maybe it will once the dust settles.

But it's not just the congressional pay raises that are troubling. The Tower affair is malodorous in a similar way. Not only does it illustrate all too well the revolving-door problem, it's also a reminder of the influence of political action committees.

Between his retirement as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee three years ago and nomination as defense secretary, John Tower collected $750,000 in consulting fees from defense contractors.

While the firms were paying Mr. Tower handsomely, their PACs also poured thousands of dollars into the reelection efforts of seven members of the Senate Armed Services Committee - the panel that oversees military contracts as well as the fitness of Tower to head the Pentagon.

The current savings and loan crisis is another example.

Through the 1980s, lawmakers did a lot for the industry while apparently ignoring the excesses that led to sloppy lending, fraud, and - for many - bankruptcy. And what were industry PACs doing for Congress during this period? Pouring money into campaign coffers. And who got much of the largess from the S&L's? You guessed it. Members of the Senate and House banking committees set up to keep things straight. And who's going to pay most of the cost of cleaning up the thrift mess? Right again. The taxpayer.

It's the money that influence attracts that makes congressional incumbency near-permanent. It's the same reason why reforming a system that legalizes near-corruption is so difficult. And so necessary.

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