Why Rostenkowski's Fall Is Producing No Cheers

Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

Political Washington is spending this Memorial Day weekend with one eye on the barbecue and the other on the fate of Chicago's Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia has given the Ways and Means Committee chairman until Tuesday to accept a career-ending plea bargain or face an indictment for alleged thefts from the federal government. No one likes watching Rostenkowski's humiliation. Everyone expresses sympathy. Yet, we have lost the ability to explain to ourselves why his necessary fate produces such a grim atmosphere.

The other night, at a snazzy black-tie dinner, a former representative explained how the wily Rostenkowski could have gotten himself into such trouble over comparatively prosaic charges--of stealing from the stamp fund, appropriating automobiles, filching furniture, padding the payroll. Time was, said the ex-congressman, when the stamp fund was considered part of a legislator's salary.

Then Reform came along. Some old-timers had contempt for the reformers and their political style. "(Expletive deleted) 'em," the veterans would say, and kept right on doing what they'd always done.

And what about those charges of Rostenkowski's paying people who did no work? That, said the maven, was Chicago--one of the last places where loyalty was the cardinal political virtue. If you had power, you gave your people jobs. If for some unfortunate reason they could not perform the requisite duties, you gave them jobs, anyway.

Alas, sigh Washington onlookers, Rostenkowski got caught in a "time warp." That verdict is true, as far as it goes. It recognizes that the standards he allegedly violated were not timeless and that the rule-breaking was not necessarily a sign of an antisocial character. But this "time warp" business gives no sense of the type of change politics has undergone in the 35 years since the chairman arrived in Congress, or of the difficulty in deciding whether it was a change for the better.

To politicians of Rostenkowski's style, politics is a personal exercise: You cannot govern just by appealing to principle or economic or ethnic interest. You need people who support you even when they don't care about the principle involved and there is nothing in it for them.

To build this kind of loyalty, you must involve yourself in your allies' lives. You become their buddy, get them jobs, show concern for their families. You appear in public with them, so that their friendship with you is clear to others. Your personal life becomes an adjunct to your political role. Your public and private selves become indistinguishable.

If you do the job well, you will find that when the crunch comes--when an unpalatable compromise has to be made or a bitter legislative pill swallowed--you can do what is necessary without committing political suicide.

The story of American politics for the past 30 years has been one of revulsion against this political style. After all, political bosses exercised arbitrary power. They gave out jobs not on merit but as a gift to someone's incorrigibly out-of-work nephew. They cheerfully and routinely sold out principle. They were not much on maximum political participation. They did not object to the idea of making a little money off the practice of politics.

This country has done a fairly consistent job of suppressing the old-style politics. We have reformed campaign-finance laws to limit the size of contributions and increase the amount of public reporting. We have changed political-party nominations to end the rule of the smoke-filled room. We have made government's internal operations more public and required officials to provide more information about their finances. We have established new organizations, from the independent counsel's office to the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, to prosecute political-corruption cases more vigorously.

As a result, the federal government is, in the traditional sense, cleaner that it used to be. For all today's news about corruption, the clear evidence is that there is far less of it than there was 30 years ago.

There are obvious costs to such efforts: Our new system has unquestionably made it harder for the country to attain political consensus and govern itself expeditiously. But has our politics at least become more moral in some fundamental sense? Almost surely not.

One of the memorable features of the Keating Five hearings of 1990 was that Charles H Keating Jr. did not try to corrupt senators mainly through traditional devices like campaign donations or clearly illegal payments. Instead, he dealt in more innovative incentives--support for a voter-registration drive, for instance, or help with community economic development--that did not go directly into a senator's coffers but that a shrewd politician would know full well how to turn to political benefit.

So there are new quids for new quos, but the principle remains unchanged: Gaming the system is as ineradicable a human drive as the desire for food or sex.

Equally inescapable is the law of unintended consequences. Do we think we purified our politics by limiting the size of campaign contributions? What we really got is congressmen who spend more time to raise the same amount of money, and who thus give more, rather than less, attention to fund raising than legislating. Do we think we got better government by tightening conflict-of-interest laws? We don't know. What we do know is that the new rules give us fewer officials with ties to regulated industries and more who get their satisfaction from exerting official power over regulatees.

When someone like Rostenkowski is caught violating the rules, he or she must be punished. Anything else is unthinkable in a democracy committed to the rule of law. Still, he was not among those whose orgy of self-righteousness transformed American politics after Watergate; his downfall does not afford the pleasure we get in seeing a man hoist by his own petard. Instead, this affair reminds us how very much of our political energy is now devoted to the catching and the punishing, and how uncertain the general benefits are. Perhaps that is why this victory for justice feels so hollow.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World