CONGRESS is in the midst of a long-running struggle to tighten its ethical standards. ``Ethics is here to stay,'' says Michael Josephson, an ethicist and president of the Josephson Institute. The issue has refused to fade from public consciousness, as some had forecast, after being thrust there when personal ethical questions forced Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential race.
The Senate is prepared to plunge today into campaign finance reform, following the completion last week of congressional action on the ethics cases of Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota and Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.
As often happens on the eve of serious debate, Republicans and Democrats are offering conciliatory campaign finance proposals aimed a compromise both parties will support.
The ethics issues of campaign finance revolve around the relationship between contributors and members of Congress to whom they donate, and the appropriateness of the huge political advantage that accrues to incumbents, who are far more able then their challengers to raise money for expensive campaigns.
Further in the future, probably beyond the November election, the Senate faces two additional ethics questions, which its Select Committee on Ethics first will investigate. They are:
Whether five senators put improper pressure on federal regulators on behalf of savings and loan owner Charles Keating, who had made campaign contributions to each. Often called the Keating Five, they are: Alan Cranston (D) of California, Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, John Glenn (D) of Ohio, John McCain (R) of Arizona, and Donald Riegle (D) of Michigan. All deny exerting any improper influence.
Whether Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R) of New York improperly pressed federal officials to approve housing projects in which campaign contributors held an interest. He denies any impropriety.
The two dramas that ended last week were of those of Senator Durenberger and Congressman Frank. By 96 to 0 the Senate denounced Durenberger, elected as a reformer in 1978 to the seat once held by Hubert Humphrey. The Senate ordered him to pay $123,000 in restitution after finding him guilty of accepting more than the $100,000 Senate limit on outside income and of billing the Senate for unreimbursable expenses.
The next day the House gave Representative Frank a similar but less severe penalty, when it officially reprimanded him for fixing parking tickets and taking other improper actions for Stephen Gobie, a male prostitute once hired by Frank, an admitted homosexual. The House voted 408 to 18 against Frank, whose intellect and legislative skill are not in question.
It may seem to this Congress, which took office a year and a half ago, as though ethics is a subject that will not go away. The ethical problems that finally forced the June 1989 resignation of then-Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas seriously impeded the functioning of the House for more than half of last year. Especially effective were the accusations that he broke House rules on his earnings from a book.
Between then and last week Congress has had to deal with other ethics cases as well, including Durenberger and Frank.
The fact that Congress acted last week on these last two ``is a very good sign,'' says ethicist Edwin Delattre, a professor of education at Boston University. ``The question now is: Will Congress have the wisdom to discern, and the courage to pursue, the public good'' by reforming the process of financing campaigns?
Congress owes it to the public to ``limit the extent to which special-interest groups ... can, in fact, influence congressmen,'' Professor Delattre says.
The cases of the Keating five and Senator D'Amato, however they are resolved, ``give Congress the opportunity to establish some standards ... [about] what the rules are to be in the future,'' Mr. Josephson says.
Members of Congress say constituents clamor for help in dealing with sometimes intransigent government bureaucracies; some members contend that in helping contributors they are merely aiding constituents. But many contributors ``are not constituents in the real sense of the word,'' Josephson says.
``In these areas, where there are really shades of gray,'' Josephson says, Congress through the Senate Select Committee on Ethics can ``clarify minimal consensus standards.'' If it does, Congress will have taken an important step toward setting appropriate ethical standards, he adds; if it does not, it will have missed a clear opportunity.