Misery of the folks who lie on the Hill: Across the country, the feeling of most Americans is that Congress is filled with crooks and scoundrels

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IN the annals of Congress it was surely one of the more pointless but also more poignant of one-minute speeches. It did not even last that long and Representative Mike Synar, a Democrat from Oklahoma, seemed to be addressing only himself. It was a 'why-I-am-here?' oration, born of intense disillusionment.

'Someone recently asked me what I revere most about Congress,' he began. 'As I thought about this I realised . . . there must be something about this institution that I love.' After pausing, he had it. It was because it is 'filled with honest, hard-working people who are willing to dedicate their lives to serving others'.

But his words were not likely to have brought much cheer to himself or those around him. For the judgment in the poolrooms and fast-food joints across the US is that Congress is filled with crooks and scoundrels.

Fresh back from the Memorial Day weekend break in their home districts, few members will dare tell you otherwise. It is also evident in the polls: Time magazine last week found only 32 per cent of Americans approved of the work done by Congress. And, when asked whether the institution is succeeding in raising ethical standards among its members, 70 per cent said it was not.

The feeling of moroseness in the corridors and offices of Capitol Hill is almost tangible. 'You can't get any further down the hill than we are,' Mr Synar told a reporter. A renowned political risk-taker and now serving his eighth term in Washington, he added despondently: 'We are at the water mark. I can't think of a time when Congress has been hated to this extent. We are everyone's favourite whipping-boy.'

Ironically, as public esteem heads South, Congress is proving relatively successful, producing legislation on the budget deficit, introducing some gun control and approving the Nafta free trade agreement.

It is not without justification that President Clinton claims that the old gridlock between the Democrats and the Republicans has been freed. There is, at the same time, an unprecedented effort under way to end the corruption. But the process of exposing the scandals in itself only reinforces the negative perceptions.

As Thomas Mann, senior fellow in government studies at the liberal Brookings Institution, says: 'We have tighter laws, tigher ethical standards, more rigorous enforcement of the rules and there have been more indictments and prosecutions. But all this has led people to consider that Congress has become more corrupt. I think the reality is just the opposite.'

Few incidents have been as depressing to members as the recent indictment on corruption charges of Dan Rostenkowski, the bulldog-faced Democrat from Chicago who epitomises the old-style of backroom deal-making and favour-swapping. He is accused of defrauding taxpayers of dollars 500,000 (pounds 330,000) through a variety of scams, including skimming dollars 50,000 from the House post office in phony stamp withdrawals. At his arraignment last Friday, he pleaded not guilty and declared: 'I will be vindicated.' 'Rosty' is still in Congress but no longer has the chairmanship of the key Ways and Means Committee - prompting initial howls of despair that the committee would no longer be able to deliver on the President's healthcare plan.

'An episode of this kind is terribly demoralising, especially when it involves someone who has such widespread respect on both sides of the aisle,' says Norman Ornstein, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. 'He was extraordinarily fair to the Republicans. He never screwed them - his word was his bond and it was good.'

What makes the reaction to Rosty's downfall so intense is the sense that he is almost the last of the old breed of deal-makers. Other strong-arm politicians like him have been felled already, most notably Jim Wright, the rough-hewn but effective House Speaker from Texas, who fled Washington in 1989 amid a welter of corruption allegations. With figures like that gone, the capacity of Congress to deliver, even when the party in the majority and that of the President are the same, could be diminished.

It is hardly uplifting for most on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, to witness Oliver North, who was convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra hearings, win the Republican nomination in Virginia a week ago to contest a Senate seat. This is particularly galling when North's principal refrain is to denounce the insitution he professes to want to join. 'If the people of Virginia want to elect a liar and a crook, that's their business,' Synar says.

Apart from the scandal surrounding Rosty, another media favourite is the case against Oregon Senator Bob Packwood. For years, he allegedly foisted himself on female staff members. Then there was the House banking scandal of 1992: 105 members who had written cheques on funds that did not exist either retired or were defeated. Feeding the atmosphere of public distrust further are the allegations of financial wrongdoing and sexual improprieties against the President.

Other factors, however, may be working to impair the congressional system. Members complain that they are ever more squeezed between the conflicting demands of different pressure groups. Few seem willing to ignore or go against what the daily opinion polls are telling them. Partisanship on each side of the aisle gets more intense and co-operation between parties more rare. And the election campaigns are, by common consent, becoming increasingly negative and brutal.

With elections in November for all House of Representative members and a third of the Senate, a record number of incumbents have already opted not to run for re-election. Some observers worry how the image of Congress under siege will affect the quality of those likely to seek election in the future. 'It will be people who have no ability to make things happen, no understanding of complex issues, no willingness to buck public and interest group pressures or any sense of historical context,' Mr Ornstein warns. 'It is inevitably going to be a far weaker Congress.'

Beneath the turmoil on Capitol Hill may be a more subtle flow of power away from the federal centre to the states and indeed down to popular government by referendum. An exploding number of petitions are finding their way on to election ballots - an initiative calling for a repeal for special rights for gays in Colorado, provisions to turn back illegal immigration into California - and these have potentially sweeping implications that circumvent even state politicians.

Mr Synar has his own theory as to why Congress keeps turning up bad apples. 'Congress is a perfect reflection of our country. If 10 per cent of the country are crooks or gay or beat their spouses, then 10 per cent of Congress are crooks, gay or beat their spouses. And that is how it will always be.'

If that is true, there may be no saving it.

(Photographs omitted)