Congress Shares Blame for Scandals
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
WASHINGTON — POLITICAL scientists say Congress shares responsibility with the executive branch for recent scandals in three areas: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the savings and loan industry (S&L), and the Pentagon for its procurement policies. Congressional responsibility lies in two areas, authorities say:
Inherent conflict for many members of Congress between their roles as regional representatives who seek to aid local constituents, and as national legislators responsible for doing what is best for the nation.
``At times Congress has as its primary motivation the influencing of decisions by executive branch officials to benefit its own constituents,'' says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. Individual members of Congress exert pressure on behalf of communities that seek HUD funds, and arms makers that want contracts. In the past, some members of Congress defended savings and loan officers before government officials.
Congress shouldn't do all that pressuring and then criticize others for the same thing, says Mark Liedl, director of the Congress project of the Heritage Foundation.
``The HUD scandal is an example of a congressional double-standard,'' he says. ``Influence peddling or lobbying by the executive branch and private enterprise [in the HUD case] is considered corrupt, and lobbying by Congress is considered a service.''
Inadequate congressional oversight of agency activities to prevent scandals from developing. This parallels failure by officials of the federal departments involved to discover misdeeds or to deal with them if they were unearthed. In the HUD scandal, now being probed in both the House of Representatives and Senate, an insufficiently knowledgeable Congress ``was on the outside looking in,'' says Norman Ornstein, political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.
But the fundamental failure of oversight is ``on the part of the political leadership of the agency'' in which the problem occurred, says Mr. Mann. It is a failure that facilitates corruption and does not root it out.
In keeping tabs on HUD, Congress also ``should have done its job, which is oversight,'' says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. He is a leading member of the House Subcommittee on Employment and Housing, which is now halfway through a probe of HUD scandals. Until the current hearings ``we haven't been doing our job properly,'' Representative Shays says.
This week the subcommittee began a series of hearings on what witnesses presented as woefully inadequate oversight by the US Department of Labor of America's 870,000 pension plans. Their fiscal soundness is monitored by fewer than 300 government workers.
Shays and other members of the subcommittee hope that their work on the important subject of pensions is shifting to a proper job of scandal prevention, from the after-the-fact probing that has occurred in the cases of HUD, S&L's, and Pentagon buying.
The subcommittee's concern is to see that monitoring is substantially improved, so as to protect the retirement benefits of 76 million workers. Subcommittee chairman Tom Lantos (D) of California says that by holding these hearings at the current early-warning stage Congress has ``the time to respond'' to prevent serious financial problems from arising. By contrast, he adds, Congress ignored similar early warnings of potential scandal in both the S&L and HUD cases and waited until scandals were in full bloom - and soaked up millions of taxpayer dollars.
In Pentagon procurement problems ``one of the fundamental problems is the politics of defense procurement,'' Mann says. Members of Congress ``exert political pressure on the process to help constituents who are seeking funds.''
Some members also exerted pressure in the S&L case, says Ornstein: ``There you had clearly, in some cases, congressional pressure [on government regulators] to ease up'' on investigations of individual S&Ls.
These cases point up ``an inherent tension'' in the job of each member of Congress, Mann says: ``local versus national interests. It's the representational function versus the deliberation over the public good. It really is a tension that is inherent in the process.
``Members of the Congress at times lean too strongly toward their representational roles, and not enough toward the public good.''
As the 1980s roll over into the 1990s, Mann sees counter trends at work on members of Congress. With the continued weakening of political parties one trend is ``ever more incentive'' to pursue parochial interests that will aid in reelection.
The second trend blows in the opposite direction: ``The individual members of Congress are more interested'' in broad national policies than before. ``They have broader goals.''