A Plan for Cleaner Politics

Congress should trade a pay hike for finance and voter-registration reform

DEAR Speaker Foley, Congratulations. As expected, though not as planned, you're the Speaker. Unfortunately, your ascension results from a congressional oil spill as challenging as Exxon's.

How can you clean up after the Wright and Coelho disasters? How do you respond to the crescendo of Republican attacks on ``Democratic corruption''? (For the moment, put aside the humorous notion that the party of Meese, Deaver, and North, the party whose President vetoed the `88 Ethics Act, the party of today's HUD scandals can make any accusations about ethics.)

As both a proud Democrat and an ethics activist, may I suggest one answer that would help restore trust in government, expand the franchise, and get our party off the defensive? Namely, in exchange for a modest and recorded-vote pay increase, Congress would enact long-needed reforms of political action committees (PACs), campaign finance, honoraria, conflicts-of-interest, and voter registration.

Clearly, people of good faith seem divided on the issue of Congress and ethics. Rep. Tom Downey denounces ``ethical McCarthyism;'' yet Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause attacks ``institutionalized bribery.'' Who's right? Both are.

It is outrageous that, in the post-Hart-Biden-Tower-Wright-Coelho atmosphere, charges become tantamount to convictions. Such trial-by-press could cashier talented people out of public life, and deter others from ever running in the first place.

At the same time, as Mr. Wertheimer implies, the scandal of Congress is not what's illegal but legal - i.e., the ``smoking gun'' is not so much third-rate burglaries or arms diversions but a system of ``legal graft'' whereby good people are pressured into bad acts. Jim Wright, for example, was accused of accepting a gift from someone with an interest in legislation. But isn't that usually true of a speech honorarium (if the member keeps the money)?

Sacrificial lions like Mr. Wright and Tony Coelho, then, are not the real problem on Capitol Hill. Rather, it's too much money and too few voters. First, after years of receiving thousands of dollars from economic elites, how many members have the courage to bite the hand that funds them? Too often they favor contributors over constituents. And second, a Congress that abolished poll taxes and literacy tests still tolerates a voting-registration maze introduced a century ago to discourage the participation of minorities and immigrants. The result today: the lowest voting turn-out among Western democracies, as people who earn over $50,000 vote on average 50 percent more than those who earn $5,000.

Some commentators belittle these issues as trivial and diverting. But since process shapes policy, a tainted congressional process is not a trivial but a primary concern. We can't ever achieve sound defense or environmental policies, for example, if contractors and polluters have so much more say than taxpayers and consumers.

Given these problems of ethics and access, and given the courage of Chinese protesters quoting Thomas Jefferson, many of us wonder where are our marchers for democracy? In fact, millions of citizens in thousands of civic groups have indeed won many reforms at the local and state levels.

Speaker Foley, let's apply their lessons to our national legislature. To advance democracy and ethics, here is an omnibus proposal that should be appealing both to defensive Democrats who believe in ethics reform and to Republicans frustrated by their permanent minority status.

Pay hike. Provide for a 10 percent pay increase for each of three years (starting with the next Congress) and then a cost-of-living increase if Congress allows a recorded vote on such an amendment. This provision avoids the flaws of the earlier, discredited salary grab, which was both excessive (50 percent in one year) and covert (no recorded vote).

PACs. Ideally, abolish PACs and institute a campaign-spending ceiling. Or at least limit PAC gifts to the amount of individual gifts (now $2,000 per election) and restrict them to a set amount, say $100,000 per House race, so a few PACs running in packs cannot dominate thousands of individual, local contributors.

Matching public financing. As in New Jersey, New York City, and the presidential primaries, public funds should match smaller, private contributions if participating candidates agree to a spending ceiling. Better that we spend pennies apiece as taxpayers than lose billions in revenues to special-interest lobbies.

Voter registration. As Minnesota and Wisconsin have done, simplify registration requirements: Allow postcard, election-day, and agency-based registration while not purging voting rolls if someone fails to vote.

Dishonoraria. Ban them. It's wrong for private interests, in effect, to pay a quarter of the salary of public servants.

``Soft money.'' The Bush and Dukakis campaigns each funneled $50 million to state parties from large donors in an obvious violation of the spirit (and maybe even the letter) of the presidential public-financing system. Because so-called ``soft money'' takes us back to the Watergate era of presidential funding, it should be prohibited or limited.

Investments. Prohibit investments by members of Congress in firms directly affected by their committee assignments, as is already the case in the executive branch. A member of, say, a banking committee, shouldn't hold bank stock.

If Congress doesn't adopt such dramatic ethics reforms, Capitol Hill will remain an echo chamber where a skeptical public may believe all accusations. Nor is this pay-for-ethics plan farfetched. Get Ralph Nader and Sen. Bob Dole to agree - since Mr. Nader has been anti-pay hike and Senator Dole anti-campaign reform - and it's a done deal.

Last week, President Bush made his highly publicized proposals on campaign-finance reforms. He deserves applause for urging the abolition of PACs and of the transfer of war chests from campaign to campaign. But he also deserves a Bronx cheer for admitting in a meeting with public-interest groups that one of his goals was to promote Republican prospects in 1990 - which his PAC proposal does, since PACs favor incumbents and there are more Democratic congressional incumbents. Why not now laud Bush's modest opening bid and raise the ante?

Mr. Speaker, obviously this grand compromise uses the bait of a reasonable pay hike to get Congress to go along with needed reforms. Would that virtue were its own reward. Until then, isn't this modest tradeoff worth the greatest pro-democracy bill of the century? Won't this proposal expose the Gingriches and Atwaters, if they balk, as partisans more interested in a good election-year issue than in good government? It's time for a new Speaker to break with the past and to take the ethics offensive, for the good of our party, Congress, and country.

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