Political Standards under Scrutiny. Probe of House Speaker, Bush Proposals for Still Tighter Rules Have Congress Squirming. ETHICS IN WASHINGTON

Article excerpt

LIKE an uninvited guest at a party, the question of ethics once again hangs uneasily around Capitol Hill.

Yet the ethical standards may be no worse than in the past - and perhaps better. Experts say ethical questions may just be asked more often now and may be receiving more accurate answers.

In general, says ethics specialist Suzanne Garment, "I think it's safe to assume that congressmen are not doing more crooked things than ever before in the history of our republic ... with one partial exception.

"It may be," says Ms. Garment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "that since the campaign finance reforms" of the past two decades, members of Congress "have had to occupy themselves more and more actively with money raising. And that preoccupation presents additional ... opportunities" to use questionable ethics.

Two factors have trundled the highly visible topic up Capitol Hill once again.

One is President Bush's new ethics proposal, which would tighten aspects of existing law. But for now at least it does not deal with a prime concern involving Congress: the honorarium system, by which members are paid money for speeches to groups that often are trying to influence Congress. That's "one of the most scandalous ethics problems in Washington today," says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause.

The second factor directing attention again to Capitol Hill ethics is the wide reporting that a congressional probe of the ethics of Speaker Jim Wright, now winding up, will result in damaging charges. Mr. Wright vigorously denies any wrongdoing.

In addition, House Democrats talk of pressing ethics charges against Republican whip Newt Gingrich, the man who initially pursued Speaker Wright.

Finally, Republican have a bitter aftertaste after having to swallow the Democrat-led defeat of John Tower, the President's initial choice for defense secretary.

Garment, the author of a forthcoming book about the politics of scandal in post-Watergate Washington, sees several reasons that the ethics of elected federal officials are a subject more frequently discussed now than 20 years ago.

"I think a lot of what we see," she says, stems from the preoccupation of members of Congress with fund raising, which the current cost of running for office requires. …


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