DANIEL WEBSTER, perhaps the greatest orator ever in the United
States Senate, is hailed far and wide by historians. Throughout the
19th century, he was so respected by educators that American
schoolchildren were required to memorize his speeches.
Yet if Senator Webster were suddenly transported to 1993, he
might be quickly hauled before the Senate Ethics Committee.
Historian Merrill Peterson observes that Webster had close
financial ties to big corporate interests in New England even as he
championed their causes on the Senate floor.
In 20th-century terms, it was a clear conflict of interest. Nor
was that all. Webster, a poor manager of money, was frequently
bailed out by wealthy backers. When he returned to the Senate,
after a stint as secretary of state, rich patrons collected a large
purse for Webster's private use, notes Dr. Peterson, a retired
history professor at the University of Virginia.
Today, such financial hanky-panky would not only violate the
rules of Congress, it would make Webster the target of every
muckraking journalist and television newscaster in Washington. He
might be forced to resign under a storm of headlines.
It's a new world on Capitol Hill - one that demands greater
obedience to the rules. Yet even as congressmen toe the ethical
line, criticism of Congress increases. Thousands of irate citizens
join groups like THRO Inc. (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out!).
Movements to limit the terms of congressmen draw growing support
from California to Florida.
Congressmen are perplexed and frustrated. Sen. Howell Heflin (D)
of Alabama, who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee for 13 years,
says proudly: "We are probably today the most ethical Congress ...
that has ever existed." Then he adds sadly: "You can't convince the
media of that."
Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says ethics is often in the
eye of the beholder. Even as Congress improves, the media and
public are so critical of politicians, he says, that "we've made
criminals of all of us."
Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah, a 12-year veteran of the House
ethics committee, says "there's nothing more painful" than ethics
investigations of a fellow member. The accused person's reputation,
sometimes his life's work, is at stake, he says.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico says ethics probes put a
tremendous strain on the accused, especially those who are wrongly
charged. Defending oneself against accusations, which are sometimes
politically inspired, can run up legal bills of $300,000 to
A simplified system
Senator Domenici says he hopes Congress will come up with a
simplified process for clearing innocent members of false ethics
charges. The aim of ethics reform should not be simply to kick out
guilty congressmen, but to improve justice for everyone involved,
While some critics focus on personal lapses by congressmen,
others say the root of the problem on Capitol Hill is money. Until
Congress takes the monied interests out of politics through
sweeping campaign reform, they say, public doubts will persist.
Voter attitudes toward Washington first began to slide downhill
after the Watergate break-in in the early 1970s. In those days,
most public anger was aimed at the Nixon White House.
More recently, attention has turned to Capitol Hill. The public
storm over congressional ethics has grown steadily stronger in the
past few years. It was fueled by the check-kiting scandal, the
savings-and-loan crisis, the forced resignation of former House
Speaker Jim Wright, and the midnight pay raise.
The responsibility for cleaning things up rests squarely with
Congress. The Constitution says only the House and Senate can
punish or expel miscreant members.
Until the 1960s, both houses used ad hoc or select committees to
deal with ethical offenses. But in 1964, the Senate appointed a
full-time ethics panel. …