LIKE an uninvited guest at a party, the question of ethics once again hangs uneasily around Capitol Hill. Yet the ethical standards may be no worse than in the past - and perhaps better. Experts say ethical questions may just be asked more often now and may be receiving more accurate answers.
In general, says ethics specialist Suzanne Garment, ``I think it's safe to assume that congressmen are not doing more crooked things than ever before in the history of our republic ... with one partial exception.
``It may be,'' says Ms. Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, ``that since the campaign finance reforms'' of the past two decades, members of Congress ``have had to occupy themselves more and more actively with money raising. And that preoccupation presents additional ... opportunities'' to use questionable ethics.
Two factors have trundled the highly visible topic up Capitol Hill once again.
One is President Bush's new ethics proposal, which would tighten aspects of existing law. But for now at least it does not deal with a prime concern involving Congress: the honorarium system, by which members are paid money for speeches to groups that often are trying to influence Congress. That's ``one of the most scandalous ethics problems in Washington today,'' says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause.
The second factor directing attention again to Capitol Hill ethics is the wide reporting that a congressional probe of the ethics of Speaker Jim Wright, now winding up, will result in damaging charges. Mr. Wright vigorously denies any wrongdoing.
In addition, House Democrats talk of pressing ethics charges against Republican whip Newt Gingrich, the man who initially pursued Speaker Wright.
Finally, Republican have a bitter aftertaste after having to swallow the Democrat-led defeat of John Tower, the President's initial choice for defense secretary.
Garment, the author of a forthcoming book about the politics of scandal in post-Watergate Washington, sees several reasons that the ethics of elected federal officials are a subject more frequently discussed now than 20 years ago.
``I think a lot of what we see,'' she says, stems from the preoccupation of members of Congress with fund raising, which the current cost of running for office requires. ``And a lot is that our detection devices have improved'': Reporting forms, for instance, require candidates and elected officials to disclose more information about their finances.
``As disclosure devices get better and tighten,'' there are more opportunities ``for a researcher to discover wrongdoing.''
Beginning in the early 1960s, and especially after the Watergate break-in of 1972, Americans began to be ``much more mistrustful of government, and much more sensitive to ethical violations,'' Garment says.
Watergate was a symbol of ethical violation. But beyond its immediate effect on the Nixon presidency, it had a lasting effect on Washington, she notes. Many laws by which members of Congress, and of the executive branch, are being judged were passed in the immediate post-Watergate years.
``And the debate over these laws,'' Garment adds, ``got us much more interested'' in the subject of ethics.
The laws do something else, she says. They offer politicians new weapons with which to attack an opponent.
The laws, and public standards not yet reflected in law, are changing with respect to relatively subtle ethical issues, Garment says. ``Conflict of interest is more subtle'' than in earlier decades. ``We're more aware of potential conflicts,'' she says.
One of the most serious problems, ethics reformers say, is congressional honorariums. President Bush says he will work with Congress to try to develop a way to boost congressional salaries and simulaneously reduce or end the amount of honorariums that members of Congress may collect.
By all accounts such a coupling is politically essential. ``Everyone knows that that's the formula that has to be followed,'' says a key congressional source.
But almost surely Congress - gun-shy after the public pounding it took over a proposed salary hike earlier this year - will not act now on any package that includes a pay raise for itself. The political climate does not now exist that would permit public approval of one, he adds.
Forbidding or reducing honorariums, without simultaneously increasing pay, would cause a pay cut of several thousands of dollars for many members of Congress. ``And Congress is not of a mood to cut its own pay,'' he notes.