ONE of the key issues in the Senate Ethics Committee hearings into the activities of the so-called Keating Five senators is the propriety of intervention on behalf of constituents. ``From a study of past ethics cases and congressional literature on the subject,'' says committee member Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, ``the standard is clear that there is nothing wrong in a senator meeting with a regulator. In fact, it's expected. The real question is: `How far is too far?'''
The hearings, which resumed yesterday, are probing the actions taken by five senators on behalf of Charles Keating and the firms, including the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, that he controlled. The five Senators 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. Each maintains he has done nothing wrong.
Members of Congress and political scientists say that intervening with government officials is a necessary part of the job of every member of Congress.
``Congressional intervention and the availability of intervention demonstrably offset agency indifference, are a guard against arbitrary, improper, and illegal bureaucratic decisions, and provide the power of public pressure to require the nonelected official to be responsive,'' says Senate Ethics Committee member Terry Sanford (D) of North Carolina.
``Intervention is the essence of representative government, for without it the citizen would have no recourse except judicial action,'' he says.
In his opening statement last week, Senator DeConcini illustrated from his own experience the range of cases in which a member of Congress might intercede: a military officer who felt he had been discriminated against; the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, with nearly 5,000 employees in Arizona, that had not received from the Pentagon a full complement of orders for Apache helicopters; Arizona (and other) farmers who protested action by the Bureau of Reclamation, and an American military family that was refused permission to bring to the United States a child they had adopted in Turkey.
Members of Congress receive many requests for help from constituents - not only the powerful like Mr. Keating but also the powerless. DeConcini says he and his office staff have intervened for 75,000 constituents in 14 years. Senator Cranston says, ``Some days it seems to me like every one of my 30 million constituents has a problem or a view and wants my attention.''
Yet no broad agreement exists on the limits of proper intervention. That ``needs to be clarified'' by Congress, says Bruce Jennings, an associate for policy research at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit institute that studies ethical issues and public policy. ``Where do you draw the line between the proper assistance ... versus undue and improper influence [regarding] the regulatory system?''
``How much do we want to insulate our executive branch officials from this kind of political pressure?'' Mr. Jennings asks.
Senator Sanford says customs and rules, which are not codified, already have established several standards. For example, he says, a member must neither seek nor accept a contribution in return for aid, and a member must be temperate in his dealings with government officials and must not employ intimidating tactics.
The late Sen. Paul Douglas, an expert on ethics in Congress, supported the principle of intercession. Yet he added a cautionary note, which committee special counsel Robert Bennett cited last week: ``It is a question of whether a member who is powerfully placed in a Senate or House committee can intervene for constituents or other supplicants, no matter how innocent his attempt, without somewhat tipping the scales of justice.''
That is one of the questions the six-member ethics committee may contemplate in this case; Senators Riegle and Cranston were the two senior Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee when they met with Edwin Gray, then chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, on behalf of Keating.
Often it is up to individual members of Congress or their staffs to conclude whether a proposed intercession is proper. Gwendolyn Van Paaschen, a banking aide to Senator McCain, testified before the committee that she felt DeConcini was trying to pressure McCain into a meeting with Mr. Gray on behalf of Keating in March of 1987 that she considered ``inappropriate.''
A member of Congress should consider one more thing when one constituent seeks intercession with officials, Mr. Bennett said in his opening statement: ``his silent constituents.'' In the case of the interventions for Keating, Bennett said, the silent constituents are people who later lost their savings when Keating's S&L collapsed, and the American taxpayers who will have to pay for the collapse: ``All of these people had constituent's rights.''
For the Ethics committee the intervention issue is but one thorn among many. But for Congress as a whole, says Jennings, the time has come ``to try to formulate standards and guidelines'' to clearly define proper and improper intervention.