House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill spent last week meeting with every group of Democrats he could find, pleading with them to save an endangered ethics and financial disclosure bill.
But one member told O'Neill bluntly, "If we pass this bill, we'll have to build another wing on Allenwood."
His picture of dozens of members going to jail (Allenwood has been the prison for many convicted federal officials) may have been overdrawn, but his reaction was not typical.
In meeting after meeting, with the leadership groups, such as the whips and Steering and Policy Committee, with the middle-roaders, and with freshmen and sophomores once zealous for reform, O'Neill found that "ethics" and "reform" had not simply lost cachet, they had become dirty words.
Last year, a package of changes designed to make the House administration more efficient was voted down. Last week a bill expanding disclosure for lobbyist ran into trouble. Now it is ethics and disclosure for members.
Both the lobbyists bill and the ethics bill may ultimately pass. The grumbling may be mere sound and fury, because it is awfully hard to vote against something labeled "ethics" in an election year.
But whip counts so far are mushy enough to frighten the congressional ethics bill's supporters, and few have rushed to its defense.
"The leadership has just been left high and dry on this," one source said.
The leadership has been left high and dry on this," one source said.
The bill the leadership wants to pass this week imposes nothing new on House members. Their code of ethics passed last year requires disclosure of outside income and assets, and limits annual earned income outside of their $57,500 salaries to $8,625.
This bill merely extends financial disclosure requirements to candidates for House and Senate and high-ranking members of the military, judicial and executive branches and sets civil and criminal penalties for falsifying financial disclosure reports.
"This bill actually helps House members," says Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), chairman of the Select Ethics Committee. The law already imposes criminal penalities for falsifying financial disclosure reports, and the bill gives the prosecutor the option of civil penalties with just a fine, Preyer said.
But the backlash against ethics is so strong that many want to undo what's already been done. With a well-placed kick at O'Neill, the Rules Committee has voted to allow the House to consider repealing the income limit and other parts of the ethics code, even though it's not germaine to the bill.
Preyer described the mounting opposition as "emotional." "They're not treating it rationally. We answer their objections but it doesn't register. They aren't listening."
The outside income limit has become the rallying point for the opposition. One supporter of the bill estimated that no more than about 40 house members have substancial outside earned income: "They've been sending up a lot of smoke about what the bill would do, putting out a lot of misinformation."
Leaders of the opposition are chief deputy whip Dan Rostenkowski (D-I11.), Government Operations Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), and Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) and Morgan Murphy (D-I11.)
They argue the income limit is unnecessary, corrects no abuse and will deter good people from entering government. Congress should be made up of citizen legislators with many outside interest, not just people who want to make a career of it, they say.
Preyer and others admit that the atmosphere today is ripe for frustration with ethics and reform.
Because of the code adopted last year, members have long and complex financial disclosure forms that they must file by April 30 and which become public shortly after that.
Members with substancial unearned income from stocks and bonds and the like are having second thoughts about the effect disclosure will have.
The Korean influence-buying scandals, members feel, are uncovering only a few to be indicted or censured yet they smear everybody.
"We all lived with that hell hanging over us for two years, and for what? Just to find out there's a few members guilty we all knew were less than wonderful anyway," a Democrat complained.
Many members expected that procedural reforms adopted over the past six or eight years would make the House work better. But in fact some feel they have actually impeded efficiency. Energy legislation, welfare and tax "reforms" have become hung up just as they would have before. "Intractable issues don't become more tractable just because you'ver reformed yourselves procedurally," a source said.
Finally, there were expectations that the image of Congress would improve if ethics codes and "reforms" were adopted. Rather, many members feel that strictures like revealing outside income will merely expose them to more flak and media investigations.
For his part, O'Neil has been pleading with members to retain the income limit because it was part of a condition they accepted when voted themselves a substancial pay raise last year.
O'Neill's reputation is directly on the line. He made the ethics code a priority item of his first year as Speaker. Repealing it in his second year would "smear his guts all over the sidewalk," a member said.
Preyer thinks members today have a radically different perception of wrongdoing.
When a member got in trouble, Preyer said, it used to be dismissed as just an individual who went wrong, nothing the House as a whole had to be concerned about. "Now we are saying the individual reflects on the institution. That frightens many members. They fear a reign of terror, an orgy of purification."