Senate Ethics Panel's Stern Duty

THIS week the Senate Ethics Committee will complete its public hearings on the Keating Five - the United States senators who are accused of influence-peddling in behalf of Charles Keating. The collapse of Mr. Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan is expected to cost taxpayers more than $2 billion. Democratic Sens. Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, John Glenn, and Donald Riegle, and Republican Sen. John McCain are under investigation for allegedly pressuring federal thrift regulators into deferring action on the failing bank. Keating paid $1.3 million into the five lawmakers' campaign chests or to groups they controlled. After closing arguments by the committee's special counsel and lawyers for the senators, the panel will begin deliberations on possible penalties, if it finds that any of the senators acted improperly.

The six members of the bipartisan ethics committee do not have an easy task. The exchange of political favors for campaign contributions (to put the harshest interpretation on the events) was never handled as crassly as will probably be depicted in the inevitable TV movie. And there is some truth in the assertion that the ``constituent services'' performed by the accused senators differed, if at all, only slightly from similar services performed at one time or another by all their colleagues.

But the ``everyone does it'' rationale would be no excuse for the members of the committee to ignore their duty to set a standard of ethical conduct for lawmakers. The questions for the panel are, first, did these senators in fact cross ethical lines for which they should be punished, and second, what do their actions say about the corrupting influence of special-interest money in today's politics?

These hearings should do more than determine the political fate of five senators. They should become a catalyst for substantial reform in campaign-finance laws and rules. Self-interest will dig in its heels against reforms that would, for instance, further limit the role of political action committees in fund raising or put ceilings on campaign expenditures. But Congress needs to recognize how close it is to losing the respect of a public fed up with money-talks politics.

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