THE criminal allegations against Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois once again reveal the Congress as the great American intersection where opportunities for service, greed, privilege, or evidence of character collide head-on.
With the 17-count indictment against Congressman Rostenkowski, his name now moves onto two lists: a short list of four other congressmen currently under indictment or investigation, and, if convicted, he will join nearly three dozen lawmakers convicted or censured over the last 20 years. Rostenkowski denies the charges against him, promising a vigorous defense in court.
Other congressman also under indictment are Rep. Joseph McDade (R) of Pennsylvania, currently charged with accepting bribes and illegal gratuities from defense lobbyists, and Sen. David Durenberger (D) of Minnesota, charged with fraudulently billing the Senate for use of a condominium he owned.
But is Congress - also the home of Abscam, the Keating Five, and the House banking scandal - any more plagued by widespread corruption now than it has been in the past? Is Rostenkowski any different from past members?
Some political scientists say the lineup of current criminal cases against members proves that Congress is a much riskier place to be criminal or unethical than it was 40 years ago.
``The main reason that Congress seems so corrupt right now,'' says David Canon, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, ``is that there is so much more public scrutiny given to its members and their actions. My view is that there is less corruption now than there was 30 or 40 years ago.''
A way of life
Others see political corruption today as far more systemic in Congress and accepted by members. When serious charges are brought, federal agencies often do the charging, not Congress.
``The problem is not what is illegal,'' says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, ``but what is legal and sanctified by the system there. Is Rostenkowski an example of a bygone era? He might be, but I think it's sort of a `there but for the grace of God go I' kind of situation with members.''
Empowered by the Constitution to police itself, Congress does so with a code of conduct and ethics. Over recent years these guidelines have been shaped, amended, and reshaped as public outrage increased over Congressional perks, spending, and conflicts of interest.
``Congress should not be a ruling class in this society,'' Ms. Miller says. ``The problem is that when some members think they are performing in the public interest, they lose their ethical bearings.''
Congress has rendered judgment on its members more often than not with a restrained hand over the decades. Unless faced with odious and clear criminal behavior, wayward members have been ``censured'' or ``reprimanded.'' Explusion is rare.
When Senator Durenberger was denounced for unethical behavior by the Senate in 1990, former Sen. William Armstrong (R) of Colorado said, ``After we have voted to denounce him, we still want him to be our friend. We will still want him to go down to the dining room and have lunch with him.''
Such friendliness perhaps engenders less public concern than skyrocketing Congressional spending on itself. A recent CNN/Gallup poll indicated that only 19 percent of Americans say they trust the government to do what is right most of the time.
Under the Capitol dome in Washington is the most expensive governing body in the world. From a budget of $343 million in 1970, the cost of running Congress shot up to $2.8 billion in 1992. After slashing some perks, reducing staff jobs, and eliminating items such as $7 million to renovate a botanical garden, the Congressional budget for 1995 is a little under $2 billion.
According to federal financial disclosure records, there are 28 millionaires in the Senate, and approximately 50 in the House. ``Congress is rapidly becoming a millionaires' club,'' Miller says. ``This says an enormous amount about the campaign finance system that brings these people to the top. I don't see how they can represent the ordinary working people in this country.''