Too-familiar cries of "scandal!" are ringing throughout Washington this holiday season. Peals of acrimony about Newt Gingrich's ethics and Bill Clinton's fund-raising are threatening the mood of bipartisan cooperation that's prevailed here since November - and could further convince the public that the US political system is filled with people who have a hard time telling right from wrong.
This doesn't mean that the specifics of ethics charges aren't serious, or that the problems of the president and Speaker Gingrich are equivalent. It does mean that Washington's cycle of investigation - in which politicians often appear to use ethics charges as a means of partisan revenge - could accelerate the long-term fall of voter confidence in the nation's entire political system.
"The perceptual problem for the public is very bad. The people's lack of faith in their government, the decline in trust since the 1960s, is one of the most worrisome problems in the nation, from a political science point of view," says David W. Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
At the very least, it would be helpful if the current round of charges led to some sort of real campaign finance reform in Washington, says Professor Rohde. But he notes that Supreme Court rulings that have in some measure equated political spending with freedom of speech would make such reform difficult. "It would surely be nice if we could use this occasion to do something about the role of money in politics," says Rohde. "But you might need some kind of constitutional amendment."
The latest spate of charges deal with Congressman Gingrich. Over the weekend, Gingrich admitted that he had broken House ethics rules by failing to ensure that the financing of a college course he taught, among other things, did not violate federal tax laws. He also admitted that he had given the House ethics panel that investigated these projects false information about their details.
The full House Ethics Committee must now vote on punishment. Republicans, claiming that Gingrich's misdeeds were inadvertent and dealt with arcane tax law, are urging that the Speaker be merely reprimanded. Many Democrats, saying that Gingrich is far from naive about finance laws and that an average citizen might go to jail for the same violation, are calling for a censure that might cause the Georgia Republican to lose his Speaker's chair.
At this writing Gingrich appears secure in his speakership. Some Republicans who had worried about the charges seem to be rallying behind the man who led the 1994 GOP takeover of the House.
But if Gingrich does lead the 105th Congress, he is likely to be a much-diminished political figure. The man who once boasted he was leading the country toward a grand post-welfare-state, information-age future has been supplanted as a leader within his own party by the ascendent Senate majority leader, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Democrats remember that it was Gingrich who brought down Speaker Jim Wright via repeated ethics charges. And while the situations are dissimilar in seriousness - no one has accused Gingrich of making money from his violations, as Mr. Wright did - Democrats have been enraged by what they feel is a GOP attempt to sweep Gingrich's problems under a Capitol Hill rug.
If nothing else, the Democrats are likely to use Gingrich's problems as a stick to beat the GOP with time and time again in the coming months. It could well prove the event that breaks the precarious bipartisan truce which has existed in the nation's capital since the election.
Perhaps the most pointed words came from House minority leader David Bonior (D) of Michigan, a longtime Gingrich foe. "We don't need people in the Speaker's chair who lie to Congress," Mr. Bonior said in a broadcast interview over the weekend.
There are some similarities between Gingrich's ethics troubles and the allegations of campaign finance irregularities that have dogged the White House in recent weeks. In both instances, the central figure in question says he had no direct knowledge of anything done wrong. The Nixonian era formulation of this defense remains a classic in its use of the passive voice to deflect: "Mistakes were made."
But there are stark differences in today's ethics swirl as well. Gingrich's involved a kind of new age politics that uses a complex structure of personal political action committees, plus new methods of disseminating information, such as cable TV, to try to persuade voters to the GOP side. President Clinton's problems, by contrast, look decidedly old school: alleged cozying up to big political donors.
Allowing big givers to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom and attend numerous White House functions may well be legal, however distasteful the average voter may find it. Allegations of connections between the Democratic National Committee, foreign donations, and administration foreign policy are more serious - and unproved.
Perhaps the biggest danger is that voters will tune out the substance of charges, believing them all politically motivated.