SENATE Ethics Committee hearings thus far in the so-called ``Keating Five'' case have already produced changes in the behavior of some members of Congress, and in public perceptions of the nation's legislature. Congress is being more cautious about intervening on behalf of campaign contributors, and the public's cynicism toward Congress is deepening. Whatever the outcome of the hearings, other changes are likely, experts say. They cite as probable a congressional move to draw a clearer line between proper and improper intercession on behalf of campaign contributors, and increasing pressure for public financing of congressional campaigns.
More damaging testimony
Pressure for these two changes could further increase later this month if the testimony by James Grogan, former top congressional lobbyist for savings and loan owner Charles Keating, seriously damages any of the five senators whose conduct the ethics panel is investigating. It is probing charges the five violated Senate rules by interceding improperly for Mr. Keating with federal regulators in return for contributions to their campaigns or to causes they controlled.
The senators insist they have done nothing wrong. 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.
As the result of the hearings thus far ``you have already had the beginning of a great deal more care'' from members of Congress and their staff about how they intervene with government officials of behalf of campaign contributors - ``and for whom,'' says David Mason, federal liaison of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Mason, who worked eight years on Capitol Hill, says the change thus far is informal, as no revisions in acceptable behavior have been published: ``It's almost a feeling on the part of staff that `There but for the grace of God go I.' ''
The Keating case ``has added serious problems in trying to address [instances] where we think the bureaucracy has not done its job'' in dealing with individual constituents, says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1988.
Mr. Bentsen, 20 years a senator, told a Monitor breakfast that until the Keating case legislators ``could go in there with some muscle'' on behalf of a constituent if they saw an abuse by government officials ``and haul them before a committee.'' Members of Congress are loathe to do so now.
Nevertheless, Bentsen said, intervention ``ought to be a part of our job'' - a point virtually all members of Congress and political experts make.
As the result of spotlight on ethics caused by a combination of the Keating case and other congressional ethics problems of the past two years, some members of Congress have changed their standard operating behavior, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies at American University. More members are refusing to accept honorariums or take campaign contributions from political-action committees, he notes.
And more ``are instructing their staffs in terms of what's acceptable behavior'' in interceding with government officials on behalf of constituents, Dr. Thurber says.
``Both the House and the Senate offices [of members] are getting the message that you can't have a staff member who's out on their hustling for [campaign] money and then coming back and saying: 'These people want a quid pro quo.''' Thurber adds.
Wide publicity given the hearing of the five senators ``is not helping the public's opinion of Congress, which was not high to begin with,'' Mr. Mason says.
Clearest example of that low opinion occurred early in the hearing, on the day that Senator McCain made his opening statement. ``He made a very strong case that he had done nothing,'' says Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Then he went on C-Span,'' on a live televised viewer call-in program. ``Most of the calls were: 'You're all a bunch of crooks, I don't care what you say,''' Dr. Ornstein notes.
Handle with care
In the future, Mason says, members of Congress will be ``more careful about taking up the cudgel'' against government officials on behalf of individual powerful constituents. The ``Keating five'' are accused of having interceded with federal bank regulators on behalf of one person, Mr. Keating. But if a number of constituents or contributors come to a senator with a common complaint, they likely will get action, Mason adds.
Bentsen insists that after the current Senate hearings Congress is certain to change its rules on what constitutes proper and improper intercession on behalf of campaign contributors.
``The system is on trial,'' Bentsen says. ``The question is - the degree to which these things are done and the context in which these things are done.''
In part as a result of the Keating case Bentsen has changed his mind on public financing of Congressional campaigns, which he opposed a year ago. ``I think that's where we're headed,'' he now says.
``The cost of campaigns is just outrageous,'' he adds. ``And the amount of time that's spent in fund raising is incredible.''