Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's trial on charges of fraud and embezzlement may be months away, but many of his fellow lawmakers, particularly Democrats, fear that the public has already found the entire Congress guilty.
"No matter how it turns out for Rosty, we've all been indicted in the public's mind . . . and sentencing is set for Nov. 8," said a House leadership aide, referring to concern that Congress' latest scandal will fuel voter anger at incumbents seeking reelection this fall.
Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, said the Chicago Democrat's alleged misdeeds are far from typical of the way lawmakers behave. Despite that, he said, the allegations are likely to confirm the prejudices of disillusioned voters who think that the very word Congress has but two synonyms: pork and corruption.
For worried Democrats, Rostenkowski's indictment earlier this week on 17 felony counts also raises the specter of a high-profile trial that will refocus public attention--just before congressional elections--on the way they have run the institution.
"Congress as a whole and the Democratic leadership in particular will in some ways be on trial with Rostenkowski, and that has a lot of people concerned about what will happen in November," said the House leadership aide.
Some Democratic strategists are still hoping that the political damage will be minimal.
Unlike the House bank scandal two years ago, when many members were found to have abused the free overdraft privileges that went with their congressional checking accounts, the current allegations involve only Rostenkowski, who is accused of defrauding taxpayers of more than $500,000 through a series of illicit transactions that allegedly included kickbacks, misuse of government funds and fraudulent stamps-for-cash swaps at the House post office.
As for its repercussions in November, "this has nowhere near the importance or the dimensions of the House bank scandal, where you had widespread personal culpability," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Adding to the effect of that scandal, Mellman said, was the obvious guilt of incumbents who had overdrawn their checking accounts by tens of thousands of dollars.
The case against Rostenkowski remains unproved. But the allegations--that he padded his payroll with ghost workers and that he obtained thousands of dollars worth of free stamps and illegally converted them into cash at the House post office--are so juicy that Republican strategists hope to use them against all incumbent Democrats in the fall.
While paying lip service to the notion that the deposed Ways and Means Committee chairman is innocent until proven guilty, the Republicans are already touting Rostenkowski's indictment as proof that corruption has been allowed to run rampant in a Democratic Congress.
"Rosty deserves the right to plead innocent just like any other American, but, when it comes to enforcing ethics in Congress, the Democrats who have controlled the House for 40 years are guilty of criminal negligence," said Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
"Rostenkowski is the most visible congressional Democrat, bar none, and as such this is a public relations disaster for House Democrats," said Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
A major theme in the next elections, said a senior aide of the committee, will be "reforming Congress," and Republicans plan to "run on that nationwide."
Partisan pit bulls such as Armey and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia are already on the attack, and GOP strategists figure that it will be easier this year for Republicans to portray themselves as outsiders because they no longer control the White House.
Other analysts caution, however, that a strategy that relies too heavily on Congress-bashing and anti-incumbency could easily backfire on the Republicans.
"Once you stir up anti-incumbency sentiments, it's very hard to steer them in a particular direction," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
"The risk for Republicans in raising the Rosty issue is that the public won't see it in partisan terms," and all incumbents will suffer, he added.
Mellman agrees. In Washington, analysts tend to view everything through a prism of partisan politics, he said, but elsewhere, "most people draw the line not between Democrats and Republicans but between themselves and politicians. . . . To most voters, Newt Gingrich looks a lot like Danny Rostenkowski."
The Republicans have some ethical baggage of their own. The ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Joseph M. McDade of Pennsylvania, has been under indictment on racketeering charges for two years. In the Senate, Republican Bob Packwood of Oregon is being investigated by the Ethics Committee on charges of sexual misconduct.
As a result, even some Republicans are having misgivings about raising Rostenkowski's indictment as a campaign issue in the fall. "When one member of the institution is indicted, it casts a cloud over all the members," said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
"The biggest liability for most members next November won't lie in having the letter D or the letter R after their names," added a senior Democratic House aide. "It will be the letter I--as in 'I for incumbent.' "