THERE'S far more than meets the eye to the Senate hearings that
opened this week into the propriety of the activities of five
senators in connection with the difficulty savings and loan owner
Charles Keating had with federal regulators.
What at first glance appears to affect only five senators in fact
raises questions about America's entire campaign finance system.
On the surface the issue is what the Senate Committee on
Standards, commonly called the ethics committee, is narrowly
probing: Did the senators act improperly in calling two meetings
with federal regulators in 1987?
The five senators - Alan Cranston (D) of California, Dennis
DeConcini (D) of Arizona, John Glenn (D) of Ohio, John McCain (R) of
Arizona and Don Riegle (D) of Michigan - are accused of meeting with
regulators to blunt a long-running investigation of Mr. Keating's
Lincoln Savings and Loan, whose 1989 failure could cost taxpayers
some $2 billion.
Keating donated a total of $1.3 million in perfectly legal
contributions to the five senators' reelection campaigns or other
The senators are not accused of breaking the law, only of
breaking Senate rules governing conflict of interest and contacting
regulators outside regular channels. Most think the hearing will
center on Senators Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle, because leaks
from Capitol Hill several weeks ago indicated that the prosecutor
hired by the committee favors dropping the charges against Senators
McCain and Glenn.
"The most important thing here is not so much the guilt of
innocence of the individual senators," says ethics expert Bruce
Jennings. "It is to understand that we are dealing with a problem
that's a part of our political system.... It involves the way in
which our campaign finance system gives undue influence to some
citizens" - large campaign contributors - at the expense of the rest
of the citizenry. Mr. Jennings is an associate for policy studies at
the Hastings Center, which studies ethical issues and public policy
"What's at stake is whether the office of the US Senate can be
used to provide extraordinary activity on behalf of a wealthy
backer," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause.
"The idea that a congressman would go to bat for one who has
given him a contribution is well accepted," says ethicist Michael
Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement
of Ethics. …