AS FAR AS financial disclosures by public officeholders are concerned, Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) is one of Congress's most puritanical members. Besides making public his own affairs in minute detail each year, he requires his staff members to disclose their finances, too. A portion of the report of one of his assistants, as printed in the Congressional Record last spring, says: "Property owned: Apartment house, $115,000; household furnishings, $8,000; Buffy Bear (sheep dog), $115; Brandy (younger sheep dog), $136; Buster (cat), $15; 1975 Dodge, $2,000."
While that is carrying disclosure to absurdity, it is worth keeping in mind when the recent round of financial disclosures by members of Congress is discussed. The nation is requiring these politicians to spread their once private affairs on the public record -- although not to the Buffy Bear level -- and it must be for some reason other than satisfying a sense of curiosity.
It may be interesting to know how large a fortune Sen. John Heinz has or now much Sen. Bill Bradley gets in deferred compensation from the New York Knicks, but neither figure tells you anything more than that one is an heir and the other was a good businessman as well as a superb basketball player. Similarly, the fact that a congressman owns a large amount of stock in one corporation or a small amount in many corporations is, standing along, meaningless.
This information -- the net worth, assets and annual income of every member of Congress -- is worthless unless it is related to something else. What counts is not what a member has or makes but how those assets or earnings affect his votes on legislation -- if they do.
The only useful purpose of the disclosure statements is to enable observers of Congress to point out those members who abuse their offices for financial gain and those who have actual, not theoretical, conflicts of interest on particular items of legislation. It is not always easy to spot those abuses or conflicts -- and they should diminish in frequency because of the existence of the disclosure statements. But that is the justification for denying to members of Congress the privacy other citizens rightly claim in their financial affairs.
Somewhere along the line, however, this whole business has gotten off the track. The existence of disclosure seems to be fostering the notion that the only politician who can do an honest job is one who has no money, saves no money and receives no income other than his salary. That idea underlies the assumptions, all too prevalent these days, that members of Congress will always favor corporations in which they own stock or will always sell their votes for lecture fees.
Such things, and worse, have happened -- and will, no doubt, again. But the notion that the only good politician is the one who has been removed from such temptations -- or who is completely dependent on a government salary -- raises questions of its own.
Members of Congress have always been drawn from the general public, not from a class of political operatives devoted exclusively to public service. Disclosure statements and income limitations were designed to put a check on the conflicts of interest they bring with them from private life, not to eliminate either the conflicts or the private life. Congress would be quite different -- and the differences would not be all to the good -- if every member's financial well-being depended solely on his or her being reelected. Some cures are worse than the disease.