Former Massachusetts Sen. Edward W. Brooke was incorrectly named last Sunday (Feb. 10, Outlook) in a compilation which included lawmakers who had been disciplined by Congress or who had resigned under ethics pressure. In fact, the Senate Ethics Committee found last March that there were insufficient grounds for considering disciplinary action against Brooke.
THE STING backlash seems to have set in. "Sting Angers House Liberals," said one of last week's headlines; "Federal Prosecutors May Be Ones Stung In ABSCAM Caper," said another. The commentators and political leaders have been thinking grave thoughts about entrapment and leaks. p
There are, of course, valid points behind these concerns. But what's worrisome is that they may move the tone of the reaction away from simple horror at what a number of congressmen apparently did. The risk is that the message of the case will be that if you're public official, no matter whay you do, Washington -- and particularly that part of Washington whose reaction is most crucial here, the leadership in Congress -- will treat you understandingly. In other words, there's a danger of insufficient perception, by congressmen and the public, of how outrageous is the activity being alleged.
Allegedly, Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Myers took an envelope containing $50,000 in cash in return for a promise to help an Arab sheik obtain residency here. For the same purpose, Rep. Raymond Lederer allegedly took his $50,000 in a paper bag, at the hotel at Kennedy Airport in New York.
Rep. Richard Kelly got $25,000 cash and stuffed it in his pockets. The $50,000 -- again in cash -- intended for Rep. John Murphy was allegedly put in a briefcase and delivered to an intermediary, as was (allegedly) Rep. Frank Thompson's $50,000. Thompson is said to have boasted to his bribers about his seniority and influence in the government.
Rep. John Jenrette allegedly looked at his $50,000, cash, said he'd have to think about it, and then arranged to have someone pick it up for him the next day. Sen. Harrison Williams allegedly picked up free certificates of stock in a titanium mine at JFK Airport, in return for which he allegedly promised to go "to the highest levels of government" to win contracts for the mine.
Judging whether laws have really been broken is the courts' job, and nobody should be insensitive to how it is done or to the fates of the congressmen involved. But Congress has a job to do, too, because if even a significant number of the allegations are true -- and even if some are true but do not survive the court test because of one point of law or another -- it bespeaks a level of sleaziness, or at least receptivity to sleaziness, that would fulfill the most cynical vision of the institution and make it even more difficult than it already is for Congress to do its work.
The Sting is particularly depressing coming as it does after a decade that saw by far the most disinfecting activity and by far the most individual instances of members' legal troubles in the history of the Congress. From 1970 to 1979, 36 congressmen and senators got somewhere on the wrong side of the law or of the rules of the Congress, as opposed to 13 in the preceding 25 years. If anyone's memory needs refreshing, these included such cases as Charles Diggs' criminal conviction (now on appeal) on 29 counts of mail fraud and illegal use of his employes' salaries; Joshua Eilberg's plea of guilty to a charge of taking money to help Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia get a federal grant; Daniel Flood's impending retrial after a mistrial on 11 counts of bribery, conspiracy and perjury; and on and on.
Certainly the nation has not lacked for attempts to clean up Congress, but after all of them some congressmen are apparently still breaking the rules in the oldest and simplest way. So it's time for something else. It should not be new spending limits and disclosure rules; however salutary those are, they don't get at the basic problem. It should not be talk about attracting "a better class of people" to politics (that's a euphemism for a richer class of people) or attempts to raise salaries in Congress (if people accepted bribes that were greater than their annual take-home pay, it's clear no reasonable raise would abolish the temptation.)
What Congress needs is a climate, established by its leadership, of absolute disapproval of sinning members. If congressmen who break the law were stripped of their seniority, cut off from contact with their colleagues, and made the subject of ringing denunciations from the speaker -- which rarely has been the case in the last 10 years -- the chances are that it would mak a difference. Consider how horrible it must have been for congressmen to contemplate the fate of Adam Clayton Powell, the last member to get the total unempathetic freeze-out from his colleagues. The slings and arrows of outsiders are much easier to take if your peers are comforting; if they're not, life becomes bleak.
At present, the treatment unethical congressmen get at least comes across as far gentler and more understanding. The Senate hasn't censured anyone since Thomas Dodd in 1967. Although it "denounced" Herman Talmadge last year and its Ethics Committee found that Edward Brooke gave it false testimony about his finances, the perception -- in the public's mind, and perhaps in members' minds as well -- was that these men were being punished in some way short of consure, and certainly short of being stripped of seniority or ostracized. The House "reprimanded" Robert Sikes in 1976 (its first action against a member since the founding of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) and John McFall, Edward Roybal and Charles Wilson (who is now reportedly under criminal investigation) in 1978. Last year it censured Charles Diggs. But again, these came across as second-level punishments. The House voted twice not to expel Diggs; in the case of Sikes' long-in-coming reprimand, Richard Lyons of The Post wrote at the time, "The vote was cast after a 20-minute discussion. Ethics committee members spoke of the 'agonizing' task of sitting in judgment of a colleague, but they scarecely mentioned the charges."
The Congress does not seem to have so agonizing a time sitting in judgment on non-colleages, on the executive branch officials it regularly accuses of not carrying out its laws properly, or on the private or government officials whose ethics it scrutinizes, even when actual illegal acts sometimes are not alleged. How can it possibly do such things effectively if it does not forcefully carry out its own rules, scrutinize its own ethics, hold itself to the same standards?
It's natural that empathy should be the response to the plight of longtime colleagues who have done things that are perceived to have been not all that different from what anybody would do. In every such case, the agony of the speaker is particularly obvious. Congressmen argue that the House and Senate are less corrupt now than they have been in the past, and it's impossible to read, say, Bobby Baker's lurid cash-and-boozy memoir, "Wheeling and Dealing," and, disagree. But nobody seems to believe this but congressmen. The institution's steady decline in the polls of public esteem makes this clear, and last week's events obviously will make matters worse.
No doubt there is something ineffable and eternal about the evil that men do, particularly the evil that they do in legislative bodies, and it could be argued that some greater degres of peer pressure wouldn't change this. But there is a facet of human nature that makes even those who are impervious to the criticism of outsiders care deeply about what their peers think of them. A corruptible congressman presumably does not have a strong conscience; nor is he much influenced by the press or Common Cause. Those people are not part of his daily life, or at least that part of it that he finds pleasant. The poeple he lives with and lives for are the other congressmen -- and the "friends" who provide him with "opportunities."
The latter group is the constant in corruption cases. Its members include people like Tongsun Park; or Nathan Voloshen, always referred to as "a New York lobbyist," who led Speaker John McCormack's administrative assistant down the path of sin; or William Fred Peters, ne Freddy LaVerne Braneff, "a former trade school operator" involved in the Flood case; or, in the AABSCAM case, "Philadelphia lawyer" Howard L. Criden, "Keyport, N.J., financial consultant" Joseh A. Silverstri, John Stowe, "formerly in the vending machine business in Myrtle Beach, S.C.," and Alex Feingberg, "personal lawyer and longtime friend" to Sen. Williams.
Men like these are generally loyal friends and supporters; and they have money and want favors. Their particular allure stems from the fact that a member of Congress who considers himself a big shot and wants to live like one will find, to his dismay, that this is not possible on his salary. The tempter can offer the opportunity to live the good life in a way that could be rationalized as being only slightly different from the way most members live. Didn't the tax returns of Gerald Ford himself show that when he was a congressman he and his wife spent an average of only $5 a week in cash, so full were their lives of car and meals paid for by others? In one account of Abscam, the sting operation is reported to have taken place in locales that include "the Playboy Club in Great Gorge, N.J., a Georgetown town house, a Ventnor, N.J., condominium, the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, and a yacht moored off the coast of Florida." That's a good picture of the life to which the tempter offers entree.
Not only that, the tempter himself often has a lot of money that he gets in extremely vague ways. He may be a lawyer who receives large "legal fees" or "retainers" just for introducing people to one another. He may "put together deals" and for his effort receive free equity in business ventures.
So the congressman of low resistance sees a world in which large sums are regularly transferred in exchange for meager work, and in which people regularly offer him the chance to enter this world himself and thereby achieve the kind of lifestyle his friends have, or the security of a big campaign fund, or a good retirement income -- all in return for something he can tell himself he would do for any constituent, especially a campaign contributor, especially a friend.
"Nobody's offered me a bribe," says Rep. Thomas Railsback, "but one time I was offered a big honorarium to speak before a big group that had legislation pending. They offered to write the speech." Railsback, being a man of conscience, said no; but from accapting that kind of offer, it's a small step to, say, the $10,000 "legal fee" paid New Jersey State Sen. Joseph A. Maressa by Joseph Silvestri, one of the ABSCAM go-betweens, which Maressa defended by pointing out that he had deposited the money in the bank, and "who puts bribes in the bank?"
That peers can create an atmosphere that effectively countervails such tempting relativism is a provable fact of life. It is obvious from "The Brethren," for instance, that questionable financial behavior by a Supreme Court justice would elicit from the other justices not empathy but cold stares. In universities, plagiarists and data-fakers get the same treatment. If you violate in even the smallest way the fundamental tenets of the institution, you're through.If you do that in Congress -- assuming honesty is fundamental to the way Congress should work -- you're not through. Our colleagues "agonize." If, instead, they just didn't understand what you have done -- if they made it clear they wanted noting to do with you -- you would care. And maybe, if that happens this time and the next few times, the Stings of the future won't work, and the Congress will.