Drain `Ethics Swamp'

AS the sad and embarrassing Jim Wright story plays itself, the temptation to cynicism must be resisted. Yes, the impression left by the charges against the House Speaker, the refusal of the Senate to confirm John Tower as defense secretary, the serious ethical questions swirling around other members of Congress, is that the capital is rife with misconduct. In a recent speech, Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer put the situation starkly:

``We've always experienced individual cases of corruption and impropriety in government. But today we have a system of legalized, institutionalized corruption. The rules themselves allow activities to take place legally that are improper and corrupting, and almost everyone is participating in the system.'' (Excerpts from Mr. Wertheimer's address on Page 18.)

The most obvious evidence of these corrupting influences is the flow of political-action committee contributions to lawmakers totaling more than $400 million over the past six years. The ever-popular ``honorariums'' for addressing special-interest groups brought in over $35 million during the same period. It's true that most members of Congress dutifully report such PAC donations and speech earnings, and most donate to charity everything above the legal limit.

But there's no way a lawmaker can pocket thousands of dollars for an appearance or as a campaign contribution and not remember his or her benefactor the next time the call comes to urge this or that action on a particular piece of legislation. That's the point, after all: buying influence. And if something is bought, then something must have been sold.

The other ethical issue being puzzled out in Washington is the ``revolving door'' through which former officials engage in the government version of insider trading. In this case, special interests are buying access and information (often key access and very sensitive information). It's a fine line between professional expertise on, say, aircraft design and plans being formulated for a next-generation fighter. But the Pentagon's Operation Ill Wind investigation, the experience of Reagan White House stage manager Michael Deaver, the rejection of Mr. Tower, the bailing out of some officials before new ``procurement integrity'' laws take effect, and the difficulty in filling some Bush administration posts - all are signs of a continuing problem.

But if there is a continuing problem, there also are signs of solutions. ``Lawmakers Have Become Supercautious as Ethics Obsession Sweeps Capitol Hill,'' a recent newspaper headline read. ``This thing's not just in the back of your mind,'' Rep. John Rhodes told the Wall Street Journal. ``It's in the front of your mind.'' Which is exactly where it should be.

There will be changes in congressional rules, in executive-branch codes of conduct, in press attention to the subject, and that's all needed. But as Rep. Lee Hamilton points out in a column in today's Monitor, the ethical tone set by government leadership is more important than closing all the loopholes. That ethical tone from the White House and congressional leaders is the first step to warding off cynicism.

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