In a sanctimonious tizzy of congressional finger-wagging, members of the House of Representatives have officially condemned what they describe as the "ongoing pattern of corruption in the D.C. government." While this forthright stand on their part apparently has no real legislative impact on much of anything, it makes a lot of members feel good -- allowing them to tell the folks back home how much they have done to keep America's capital morally upright.
D.C.-bashing has always been a major-league sport on Capitol Hill. But when the city government is already reeling from convictions of deputy mayors and a continuing grand jury investigation into friends and acquaintances of varying proximities to Mayor Barry, the impact is multiplied. As reports, allegations, rumors and dead-wrong assumptions keep piling up, an erosion of confidence is bound to set in. Top aides try to jump ship before they're deemed tainted, efforts to recruit new talent suffer, morale among honest public servants plummets and racial polarization intensifies.
The latest House action came in the form of an amendment introduced by Rep. Robert S. Walker, Republican of Pennsylvania, a confessed foe of wrongdoing. "A number of us have been disturbed watching on television and reading in the newspapers about a continuing pattern of corruption that has emanated" from the D.C. government, Mr. Walker said. "The amendment . . . has us on record saying this is a fundamental problem that should be corrected."
That was on a Friday. On the following Monday, Walker and three GOP colleagues recognized (at least to a partisan degree) that they had something of a pot-to-kettle, stones-from-a-glass-House situation: distributing a list of 10 House members -- all Democrats -- who have been accused of questionable practices, either in news articles or by government authorities, the four called for creation of a special commission to investigate. "If there were similar newspaper stories, similar powerful allegations about a Republican, we would be as aggressive and as firm in taking a stand," said Rep. Newt Gingrich, who added that the names they cited were only a "representative list of the most recent collection of published, printed allegations."
But a check of congressional misbehavior since 1981 turns up some Republicans in trouble as well. GOP lawmakers have cornered a few distinctions, including an Abscam sentence; a conviction for failure to disclose financial dealings; censure for sexual misconduct with a Capitol page; and a resignation after arrest on a morals charge in a Capitol Hill men's room.
And if Walker and Co. want to sweep the landscape, they might also deplore what some may construe to be "a continuing pattern of corruption" in the White House, where 10 senior administration officials have faced criminal charges since 1981. In addition, as noted in a roundup published in The Post last month, a list of officials under investigation by separate independent counsels includes the attorney general, two former White House aides and two former assistant attorneys general. Then there are these headlines, with photos, from Tuesday's front page: "Deaver's Perjury Trial Begins" and "Former HHS Official Pleads Guilty to Kickback Charges."
Some of those on all these lists may emerge and remain legally clean, and none of this is meant to excuse the betrayals of public trust that have occurred in Congress, in the White House or in the city administration. When it comes to misconduct, unfortunately, there's enough almost everywhere to go around.
Perceptions of it vary, however, particularly when it involves a relatively young local government structure in a mostly black city where people have worked for ages to achieve limited home rule. However wrong they may be, it is easy for black elected officials and voters who support them to characterize any investigation as rooted in racism. At the same time, many whites -- residents, members of Congress and constituents who may know little or nothing about local Washington -- may revel in criticism groundlessly linked to race.
The longer the cloud remains over the District Building, the more damage is likely to occur. As Deputy Mayor/City Administrator Thomas Downs notes, people have difficulty differentiating between institutions and individuals -- between a government and certain corrupt officials in that government.
To make matters worse, there is hardly a great wave of new talent itching to take over the local political reins and lead this city on to greater heights. Those who might best do the job are increasingly content to find more money, more privacy and more satisfaction outside of government than in its top circles. Add clouds of corruption and an investigation that so far shows no signs of ending, and you have a fragile city government -- far worse off than any Congress or White House with corruption and other misbehavior troubles. It makes a prompt conclusion of this current investigation by U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova all the more important.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.