The Foul Stench of Money

In Congress the scandal is not what's illegal -- it's what's legal

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"I have violated no rule and certainly violated no commonly accepted ethical standard," said Speaker of the House Jim Wright in defense of his shady book deal and questionable lobbying. Wright may well be correct in his assessment, which is precisely the problem on Capitol Hill. The stench of money hangs heavy over the place these days. Despite specific rules aimed at curbing financial abuses, any sharp-eyed Congressman knows how to get around them. Free vacations and meals, overstuffed campaign chests and large fees for giving speeches or sometimes for just showing up at an event are routine. Kinsley's Law, named for New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley, says the scandal in Washington is not what's illegal, it's what's legal.

The observation attributed to Winston Churchill about the second oldest profession is increasingly true of too many Congressmen: we have established what they are; now we are just haggling over price. The jumping-off point is $1,000, the maximum an influence peddler can give to any one candidate. But that is barely enough to be put on hold by a congressional aide. Says a weary lobbyist: "Imagine a maitre d' at a pretentious restaurant who thinks you stiffed him with a $20 bill. That's how a Congressman treats a lobbyist who can't do better than the legal limit."

Consider Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who on taking over the Senate Finance Committee in 1987 formed a breakfast club with a suggested membership price of $10,000. When his hometown newspapers carried stories about the scheme, Bentsen dropped the idea. A similar group at an identical price, formed by Democrat Robert Byrd after he became Senate majority leader in 1987, continues to thrive.

In the House, Democratic Whip Tony Coelho used a 112-ft. yacht and Learjet belonging to Vernon Savings & Loan to entertain contributors and fly to fund- raising parties. Federal thrift regulators last year charged the Texas bank's officers with looting it; two have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the case. Last year Coelho lobbied for a $5 billion bill to bail out the industry. Coelho has admitted he was wrong to use the yacht and jet; he and the Democrats' campaign committee paid Vernon $48,450 for their use.

Ostensibly, legislators take money from lobbyists to help with their campaigns. Yet most House incumbents are re-elected easily; many run unopposed. Unlike the bride who returns wedding gifts when the marriage is called off, members of Congress keep what they are given, even when there is no real race. Upon retirement, a member elected before 1980 can keep this pot of money for his personal use -- a kind of IRA with no strings attached. So far, New York Democrat Stephen Solarz has piled up more than $800,000, as has Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski; New Jersey Republican Matthew Rinaldo has $600,000. A law passed in 1979 allows members elected after that date to return unused campaign money to a charity, the member's political party or contributors.

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