Congress is consistent at corruption

Some lawmakers act as though they are beyond the reach of rules meant for others.

Foley's folly – the sexually suggestive messages that Rep. Mark Foley (R) sent to one or more former congressional pages – is only the latest manifestation of Lord Acton's axiom that power tends to corrupt.

In the case of our Congress, the corruption is of two general sorts – money and sex.

The money corruption hardly needs to be spelled out. Just mention names such as Republicans Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay, or lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Trading votes on pending pork has become a routine part of the legislative process.

But the big ones are remembered – like the 1981 sting operation called Abscam, in which a senator and six representatives were caught in a trap when they thought they were being handed cash by an Arab sheikh.

In the case of scandals with sexual overtones, there was, for example, Rep. Wayne Hays (D) of Ohio, exposed in 1976 as having put his mistress on his official payroll. She later admitted she couldn't type, but typing was apparently not part of her duties.

The sex-linked scandal I remember best involved Wilbur Mills, the powerful Democratic chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was caught in 1974, carrying on around the Tidal Basin with an Argentine striptease dancer. Like former Representative Foley, he attributed it to alcoholism.

Then there was Sen. Robert Packwood (R), accused of sexual harassment by 10 women in 1992.

In all of these episodes there was a sense that lawmakers, once ensconced in office by the voters, were acting as though they were beyond the reach of rules meant for others, from parking in "no parking" zones to making advances to 16-year-olds. There is a sense of "you can't touch me," until some scandal explodes that is too outrageous to ignore.

But if the past is any guide, power will continue to corrupt, perhaps absolutely.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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