Am I the only red-blooded American patriot -- one of 250 million -- who wonders if the Senate Ethics Committee is drilling itself a huge dry hole?
The reference is to that body's prolonged inquiry into the "Keating Five" case. The five U.S. senators under investigation -- DeConcini and McCain of Arizona, Riegle of Michigan, Cranston of California and Glenn of Ohio -- are accused of pressuring Federal Home Loan Bank Board regulators to soften their treatment of Charles Keating's shaky Lincoln Savings and Loan, which later collapsed under the weight of its bad loans. As one listened to Sen. Riegle make his plea that, really, the big bucks Keating passed out to the senators' campaign funds made no difference, quite the contrary, the whole inquiry suddenly seemed overwhelmingly absurd.
If the issue really is whether the five senators were directly or indirectly influenced to help Keating by his financial largess, the commonsense answer is surely: Of course they were. Keating himself said it best. Asked if he thought his dollars had helped with senatorial access, Keating replied in his arrogant way: "I certainly hope so." Credit Keating, at least, with candor. He descends from that class of American tycoons whose original prototype was Commodore Vanderbilt, who regard U.S. senators more as lackeys than as servants of the public interest.
But as usual, basic distinctions are useful. Is such interest- and dollar-driven intervention really unethical? Or is it easily distinguishable from what senators and representatives do routinely under the rubric of "constituent services"? With its squadron of legal eagles, haughtily free of the contaminations of democratic politics, the Senate Ethics Committee can probably find a shaft or two of daylight between the activities of the Keating Five and ordinary constituent services.
The goo-goo view is that the Senate should consist of Platonic guardians, prayerfully deliberating in a financial vacuum and legislating for the good of our souls. It is a noble vision, but it bears little relation to what senators actually do and long have done. And there is a substantial question whether it has anything to do with what the Framers of the Constitution intended them to do.
The Philadelphia 55, who were themselves suspected of unwholesome servility to the Money Power, clearly meant senators to protect the major economic interests of their states against the much amplified regulatory powers of the new federal government. Their election by state legislatures made that function inevitable as well as explicit. The 17th Amendment, spurred by the feeling that senators had gone overboard and become a bit too thick with railroads and banks, changed the manner of election. But it did not alter, it only camouflaged, the Senate's abiding function.
In Washington today, a vast panoply of "ethics" laws, rules and regulations has supplanted personal responsibility; and it is fashionable to identify as corrupt what is merely necessary, even essential, in a free government ruling a complex economy.
We have become prudish about these processes, and prudishness hasn't made the mediation of senators less essential. We are lucky, in fact, that not every bureaucratic edict stands against political intervention. It depends on the merits. In hindsight, it would doubtless have been better if the senators had left the regulators free to work their will against Keating; but the bad outcome of a fair contest doesn't vitiate the contest.
The real distinction may be the imperious personality of Keating himself and its effect on the five senators. With a less obstreperous patron, the five senators might have acted more cautiously. As it is, they are mainly guilty of violating Mrs. Patrick Campbell's immortal guideline, originally applied to sexual conduct in the Edwardian Age. "You could do anything," she said, "as long as you didn't do it in the streets and frighten the horses."