An Immorality Crusade : Washington Inside-Out

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion</i>

“They say that power corrupts,” a political consultant observed, “but the lack of power corrupts too.”

The Democrats have been the majority party in the House of Representatives for 35 years. Holding power for so long has made them arrogant and corrupt, the theory goes. Look at Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-Tex.). He is the subject of a nine-month investigation by the House ethics committee, the results of which are due to be released early next month.

On the other side of the aisle, House Republicans have become frustrated and demoralized after 35 years in the minority. The GOP leadership is ideologically corrupt, many younger Republicans feel. They criticize Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) for being too accommodating. He makes deals with Democrats and takes whatever crumbs they are willing to offer. Last week, House Republicans repudiated Michel’s approach by rejecting his candidate for minority whip, the second-ranking GOP leadership position. Instead, they chose Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whose style is anything but accommodating.


People have raised questions about death and taxes, but you can always count on a Democratic majority in the House. According to one favorite Washington story, the Almighty becomes upset about the terrible state of affairs in the world. So He decides to do something about it.

The Lord appears before British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and asks, “What can I do to make the world better?” She replies, “You can figure out a solution to the troubles in Northern Ireland.” God considers her request and says, “That is a difficult problem. It will take some time to resolve. But I can promise you a solution by the year 2025.” On hearing that, Thatcher weeps.

Then the Lord appears before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and asks, “What can I do to make the world better?” Shamir answers, “You can find a solution to the Palestinian problem.” God ponders this and says, “I can do that. But it will take a long time. I can promise you a solution by 2040.” And Shamir weeps.

Finally the Lord appears before President Bush and asks, “What can I do to make the world better?” Bush thinks about the question and replies, “The United States is the world’s last great hope of freedom, but we cannot govern ourselves as long as we have a Republican President and a Democratic Congress. Maybe you can figure out some way for the GOP to gain control of the House.”

And the Lord weeps.

Republicans have not given up the faith, however. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and right now, He has cast a pall of gloom over the Democrats. “We’re all very depressed,” said one House Democrat. “It’s like a morgue.”

The immediate cause of Democratic depression is the Wright matter. The issue is so sensitive that the ethics committee decided not to release its report--rumored to be more than 450 pages--until after the Easter recess. Democrats did not want to go home to their districts and face a firestorm of criticism over Wright.

If the committee finds that Wright violated House rules, even if it recommends no more than a reprimand--the mildest punishment--Wright is probably finished as Speaker. What if the report merely criticizes him for using poor judgment but finds that he did not break the rules? He’s still in big trouble. As one congressman put it, “You can’t have a 450-page report written about you and expect to be exonerated.”

Talk to Democrats in Congress and you will hear a constant refrain: “I’m not walking the plank for Jim Wright.” This is partly--but only partly--due to the lack of esteem in which Wright is held by his colleagues. Many criticize his leadership. They resent the way Wright handled the congressional pay raise issue earlier this year. Instead of protecting members, he caved in to public pressure and allowed a vote. Many members plan to return the favor by forcing a vote on him.

But there is another, more important, reason why Wright is in so much trouble. The environment of congressional politics has changed. There is no such thing as insider politics any more. Politics is now an outsiders’ game. “You can’t bury the committee report,” said one congressman. “Not after what happened to Gary Hart and John Tower.”

Under the new political rules, everything is public--and fair game. Wright didn’t play by the new rules. That’s why he got into trouble. Gingrich was one of the first congressmen to understand and exploit the new rules. That’s why he has been vaulted into a position of leadership.

The things Wright did were more or less accepted under the old rules. He had a friend publish a collection of his speeches and then sell the book to supporters and lobbyists under an arrangement involving unusually high royalties. He intervened with bank regulators on behalf of Texas savings-and-loan institutions. He accepted favors from a developer in his district. In Lyndon B. Johnson’s day, you could get away with those things.

But in LBJ’s day, a politician could also drink and womanize and not expect anyone to care unless it interfered with his work. No more. Tower represents a turning point in congressional politics, just as Hart represented a turning point in presidential politics.

Hart and Tower destroyed any remaining barriers between public and private behavior. There was no “smoking gun” in the Hart and Tower cases. They didn’t get Hart and Tower on dereliction of duty. They got them on “judgment.”

These days, if you want to run for office or accept a position of public trust, everything is relevant. Your moral, medical, legal and financial background, even your college records, are subject to public scrutiny. In the old days, the scrutiny was done in private, and certain transgressions could be considered irrelevant.

But look at the kinds of questions you have to answer today in order to be eligible for a presidential appointment: Have you ever had psychological counseling? Have you used any illegal substance, including marijuana, since age 18? Not that going to a marriage counselor or smoking pot in college makes you unfit for public service, but such revelations might embarrass the President.

Wright feels confident that he did not violate House rules. “The main thing is, in my case, I just haven’t paid any attention to my personal finances,” he said last week. This is his way of explaining it.

The congressman who initially raised questions about Wright’s ethics was none other than Gingrich. He called Wright “the most corrupt Speaker in the 20th Century” and said he typified the venal, arrogant Democratic rule of Congress. Gingrich demanded a committee investigation, and the result was “a fishing expedition that caught a whale.”

Gingrich has never been an inside player. But he is a master of outside politics. Here is how Congressional Quarterly describes him: “He has made his name as the ringleader of a band of junior Republicans who perfected . . . a brash political strategy for coping with their minority status in the House: confronting and harassing the Democrats rather than negotiating with them.” In other words, taking it to the streets.

As GOP consultant Charles R. Black Jr. said, “Newt wakes up in the morning and the first thing he thinks about is how to become the majority party.”

One tactic is to go after the Democrats on issues such as pay raises and honorariums. Expose the House leadership as corrupt and tyrannical. Not only did Gingrich score a direct hit against Wright, several years ago he managed to humiliate Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr., by having him ruled out of order on the House floor. The younger Republicans loved it. The Democratic Establishment was indignant. Now they are terrified.

Gingrich’s objective is to carry on an ideological battle with Democrats. The reason is simple: Democrats lose ideological battles. That’s how George Bush beat Michael S. Dukakis last year. Republicans are frustrated because Democrats at state and local level seem able to immunize themselves from ideological challenges.

Gingrich wants to break down their immunity. His allies in this ideological offensive are Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Edward J. Rollins, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Their tactic is to expose Democrats as liberals--in Congress and at home.

While Democrats are masters of inside politics, they are not so good at outside politics. Republicans are the ones with great communication skills. Democrats know how to make deals. Republicans know they can’t win the Democrats’ game, so they play a new game.

That’s why something strange seems to be happening to House Democrats. They think about their future under Wright and Gingrich. And the Democrats weep.