An Ethics Scare, a Timid Congress
JIM WRIGHT and Tony Coelho are jettisoning themselves from Congress like some political Darth Vaders, before their careers there explode. Mr. Wright is expected to quit his powerful post as House Speaker, and his seat, to escape scrutiny before the House Ethics Committee. He would have had to face accusations about financial dealings with friends, book contracts, and jobs for his wife. Mr. Coelho, the third-ranking House Democrat, is avoiding an inquiry into his financial affairs. In the Iran-contra matter, issues of public policy and executive decision were at stake. But further airing of Wright's and Coelho's dealings would benefit neither the government nor the public.
Obviously Congress as an institution has not been helped by the ethics breakdowns. Tom Foley, the experienced House majority leader from Washington, would bring a steady hand to the House Speaker's role. But the public will be quicker than ever to blame Congress for Washington's failings.
The departures so far lack combustive potential to change things much for the Congress. If they are followed by ``nine or 10'' more Democrats, as threatened by the GOP opposition, the majority party's effectiveness will crumble.
Has the House fallen behind the ethics curve? With 98 percent of House members who choose to run getting reelected, are enough new faces recruited every two years to keep the membership's thinking on track? Last fall, 402 of 408 incumbents won reelection, leaving room for just 33 freshmen.
Congress experts like Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution observe that this Congress is a fairly young body. Changes in the House run in cycles. From 1974 to 1982, there were big changes - many retirements and defeats - that broke a seniority logjam. But since '82, the membership has been stable. In the last Congress, 70 percent of the House members had been in office 12 years or less. The new mid-career House powers like Republican Newt Gingrich, leader of the GOP attack, and Democrat Coelho were in the freshman class of '78, hardly old-timers.
``Of the 140 or so committee chairmen in the House, most are in their fourth to eighth terms,'' says Rep. Don Pease (D) of Ohio. ``They're hardly hidebound in their thinking.''
Congress is better able to get its act together to legislate, is better organized, and has better staffing than ever. Its failure to appear convincing stems from a timidity that is ironic, given reelection rates. The ethics scare will not make the survivors bolder.
The members as a group are concerned about the national issues. They form committees and task forces in profusion. But too few are willing to raise taxes, cut spending, or do whatever must be done to overcome the budget deficits created by their own 1981 budget act, for example.
Responsible people inside the Congress and out want the members to disregard the public that routinely reelects them, and to do something. And they want it done without asking the White House for help.
The class of '74, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam class, changed the look and feel of Washington politics. ``They had different values and sensibilities,'' says Peter D. Hart, the Democratic pollster. ``If they're still there, they have more influence and power, but not the edge, the feistiness, that they had in the '70s. Congress is managing, coping, surviving; but it's not pathfinding, challenging - it's not breaking through.''
``The stultification of incumbency is causing a great stultification of the minority party,'' says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa. Alluding to the GOP attack on Democrats, he adds, ``It has led to a breakdown of comity. A more competitive environment might produce more respect for the process.''
The recent failure to enact a congressional pay raise could lead many members to move on. But for now, a public that elected a continuity president may also prefer a stand-pat Congress.
Until the arrival of some cause like civil rights, an environmental catastrophe, or the violation of public trust greater than can be offset by resignation, the current cycle of incumbency will not be broken.