Americans rate the ethics of Congress lower than eight other institutions, but higher than the ethnics of corporate executives or labor leaders, a Louis Harris poll made public yesterday shows.
The Harris survey of 1,510 Americans was ordered and paid for by the Commission on Administrative Review, which helped frame the questions that were asked. The 15-member commission, made up of House members and representatives of the public and chaired by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), is in the process of writing a new code of ethnics for the House. Both the Harris survey, which cost about $50,000, and a commission poll of 150 House members were aimed at finding out what roles congressmen should play and what ethical standards they should adhere to.
In the Harris survey, ethical standards were considered higher in consumer action groups, television news, newspapers the White House, state governors, state legislators, farm organizations and local government than in Congress. Congress was given a 53 to 38 per cent high ethics rating, 13 points below the 66 per cent high ratings given consumer groups and television news, which tied for first place.
Below Congress were corporate executives, who got a 45 to 43 per cent high rating, and labor leaders, who had a 54 to 34 per cent negative rating on their ethics.
Though 78 per cent polled by Harris approve a tougher code of conduct for Congress, by a 48 to 35 percentage the public was doubtful this would happen. The balance of 17 per cent weren't sure whether Congress would come up with a stronger code or not.
The Harris poll showed by a 54 to 37 percentage the public agreed with the statement that "with the job so demanding, regardless of what their occupations were in private life, congressmen should give up their private careers and devote full time to Congress."
Some 64 per cent of the House members polled by the commission agreed with that statement.
The Harris survey showed a 76 to 14 per cent majority believe "Congress tried to hide a lot of things from the news media" but the news media were criticized by a 73 to 18 per cent majority for putting "too much emphasis on the personal lives of congressmen and not enough emphasis on the actual news being considered by Congress."
Only 50 per cent of those surveyed knew the name of their congressman, and Harris said those who knew most about Congress tended to rate it and its members higher than those who knew little. "Familiarity does not breed contempt," Harris said.
Commission sources said yesterday they will recommend next week plugging a loophole in the House ethics code that permits members to use campaign contributions for personal expenses.
Although the ethics code states that congressmen cannot convert campaign funds to personal use, an "escape clause" add to the code in 1975 effectively nullifies that prohibition.
The escape clause apparently saved House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) from an ethics violation late last year when he used excess campaign money to pay personal debts which he said had been comminigled with campaign expenses.
Obey commission sources insisted, though, that they had planned to plug the ethics loophole long before the Wright cas became public. They said a formal recommendation had been delayed because of disagreement among commission members on how sharply to limit the use of excess campaign funds.
Meanwhile, House Republicans criticized the proposals a commission task force has already made for strengthening the code. The House Republican Research Committee Task Force on Reform called a full audit of all expense and personnel records by an independent outside agency, a vote on all salaries and allowances by the full House and a prohibition on mass mailing under the free franking privilege 60 days before an election.
But in one area, the Republicans thought the commission too tough.The commission called for limiting outside income including honoraria to 15 per cent of a member's salary (about $6,000 or $8,000 depending on whether a pay increase is approved), but the Republicans would allow a member to earn up to $15,000 in outside income, plus $15,000 in honoraria.