Ethics Scandals in Washington Threaten Spirit of Cooperation Gingrich, Clinton Woes Add to Voter Angst about System

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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. …