DANIEL WEBSTER, perhaps the greatest orator ever in the United States Senate, is hailed far and wide by historians. Throughout the 19th century, he was so respected by educators that American schoolchildren were required to memorize his speeches.
Yet if Senator Webster were suddenly transported to 1993, he might be quickly hauled before the Senate Ethics Committee. Historian Merrill Peterson observes that Webster had close financial ties to big corporate interests in New England even as he championed their causes on the Senate floor.
In 20th-century terms, it was a clear conflict of interest. Nor was that all. Webster, a poor manager of money, was frequently bailed out by wealthy backers. When he returned to the Senate, after a stint as secretary of state, rich patrons collected a large purse for Webster's private use, notes Dr. Peterson, a retired history professor at the University of Virginia.
Today, such financial hanky-panky would not only violate the rules of Congress, it would make Webster the target of every muckraking journalist and television newscaster in Washington. He might be forced to resign under a storm of headlines.
It's a new world on Capitol Hill - one that demands greater obedience to the rules. Yet even as congressmen toe the ethical line, criticism of Congress increases. Thousands of irate citizens join groups like THRO Inc. (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out!). Movements to limit the terms of congressmen draw growing support from California to Florida.
Congressmen are perplexed and frustrated. Sen. Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama, who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee for 13 years, says proudly: "We are probably today the most ethical Congress ... that has ever existed." Then he adds sadly: "You can't convince the media of that."
Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says ethics is often in the eye of the beholder. Even as Congress improves, the media and public are so critical of politicians, he says, that "we've made criminals of all of us."
Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, a 12-year veteran of the House ethics committee, says "there's nothing more painful" than ethics investigations of a fellow member. The accused person's reputation, sometimes his life's work, is at stake, he says.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico says ethics probes put a tremendous strain on the accused, especially those who are wrongly charged. Defending oneself against accusations, which are sometimes politically inspired, can run up legal bills of $300,000 to $500,000. A simplified system
Senator Domenici says he hopes Congress will come up with a simplified process for clearing innocent members of false ethics charges. The aim of ethics reform should not be simply to kick out guilty congressmen, but to improve justice for everyone involved, he emphasizes.
While some critics focus on personal lapses by congressmen, others say the root of the problem on Capitol Hill is money. Until Congress takes the monied interests out of politics through sweeping campaign reform, they say, public doubts will persist.
Voter attitudes toward Washington first began to slide downhill after the Watergate break-in in the early 1970s. In those days, most public anger was aimed at the Nixon White House.
More recently, attention has turned to Capitol Hill. The public storm over congressional ethics has grown steadily stronger in the past few years. It was fueled by the check-kiting scandal, the savings-and-loan crisis, the forced resignation of former House Speaker Jim Wright, and the midnight pay raise.
The responsibility for cleaning things up rests squarely with Congress. The Constitution says only the House and Senate can punish or expel miscreant members. Enforcement changes
Until the 1960s, both houses used ad hoc or select committees to deal with ethical offenses. But in 1964, the Senate appointed a full-time ethics panel. The House followed suit in 1968 with its Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
Committees in both houses are bipartisan - three Democrats and three Republicans in the Senate, seven from each party in the House.
Representative Hansen says that in all his years on the House panel, every decision has been evenhanded. "We've never had a partisan vote," he says.
While some members, particularly in the House, say their current procedures work well, others remain dissatisfied. Senators complain that in their small, 100-member body, using six senators to investigate ethics violations for months at a time diverts valuable attention away from their primary legislative duties.
To ease the workload and improve public confidence, congressmen and outside experts suggest several changes:
* Appoint an outside ethics panel. Drawn from jurists, former members, or ordinary citizens, a special panel could investigate charges of impropriety by senators and representatives. It would serve a role comparable to a grand jury. Bringing in outsiders might make decisions more believable, particularly when charges against a congressman are dismissed as unfounded.
* Develop ethics training. Many members find the rules confusing or nebulous. It often takes an attorney to interpret ethics guidelines.
* Standardize the rules. At the moment, House and Senate members have different regulations governing what is right and wrong. The House system is somewhat more formalized, written down in its red-jacketed "House Ethics Manual."
* Set a statute of limitations. Even in criminal law, the time for prosecution can eventually run out, depending on the seriousness of the offense.
A number of leading congressmen say the need to improve the public standing of Congress is urgent. "Ethics is on the front burner," Senator Heflin warns. "Congress is on trial."
John Saxon, an Alabama attorney and former Senate staff member, calls this a "new era" in ethics when a wayward public official gets no opportunity for public atonement. "We increasingly are in a period when `ethics' seems more and more about being perfect," he says. `No free bites'
"As every freshman law student learns in torts, `every dog gets one free bite,' " Mr. Saxon says. "More and more, I am inclined to believe that political dogs get no free bites."
Higher standards, some experts note, now apply to state lawmakers, not just congressmen. "In my opinion, legislatures and legislators generally, like members of Congress, are being unfairly accused," Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University authority on ethics in state governments, told Congress recently.
Despite rising ethical standards, he says, "Legislatures cannot seem to catch up" with public expectations.
Dennis Thompson, a lecturer on ethics at Harvard University, goes further and says that other professions - including clergy, doctors, lawyers, the media - are under public scrutiny, as well. The public is demanding a voice in the ways they operate, he says.
This means self-policing by Congress may no longer be enough to quiet its critics. As Dr. Thompson observes: "Even if the legislature reaches an objective judgment in a case ... citizens may have good reason to doubt that the decision is objective."
At least one Founding Father would have agreed. James Madison wrote in The Federalist over 200 years ago: "No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time...."
Congressmen readily admit that judging their colleagues is the worst job on Capitol Hill. Many congressmen flee from service on the ethics panels. Hansen says after conducting an investigation, "members won't even talk to you for awhile." He says some congressmen see the House ethics panel as a kind of "Gestapo."
Yet the public remains skeptical that Congress really pursues wrongdoers. Easing those doubts remains one of Capitol Hill's toughest and most urgent jobs.