Leading Article: Congress jungle needs elephants

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The Independent Online
WHILE younger congressional colleagues lunch on grilled Pacific sole and mineral water, Dan Rostenkowski prefers a thick steak and a few Martinis. Not for him the puritanical ways of modern politics: Mr Rostenkowski is a bull elephant who has survived from another age. A machine politician, he belongs to the wheeler-dealer traditions of Congress that have blurred the distinction between corruption and plain glad-handing.

He seems to epitomise all that is said to be worst about Washington. The country's mood has swung against politicians who have grown arrogant in their financial impropriety. Bill Clinton was not alone in attacking them during the election campaign only 18 months ago. This president, it might be expected, would not mourn the fall of a politician charged with swindling the public purse of dollars 500,000, allegedly to pay for, among other things, a gardener and a photographer at his daughter's wedding.

Yet for all the doubtful ethics of old-style congressional committee chairmen, every occupant of the Oval Office needs their arm-twisting skills. Without the likes of Mr Rostenkowski, the White House faces legislative stalemate on Capitol Hill. Mr Clinton is the first president since 1968 whose party controls both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But party allegiance counts for little and filibustering can kill off popular bills. He depends on the waning powers of these ageing barons whose virtues and vices seem intimately connected.

In particular, Mr Rostenkowski was needed to steer through comprehensive health reforms in the same manner as his predecessor Wilbur Mills achieved for Lyndon Johnson 30 years ago. Now that Mr Rostenkowski faces charges, the Clinton proposals are in even greater danger of defeat by the blocking skills of the Republican opposition and faint-hearted Democrats. Congress may emerge cleaner from the purge, but it could also fall further into disrepute for failing to reflect a national desire for change.

The crisis in Washington is forcing individual states to take matters into their own hands out of desperation. As Congress fiddles, many are developing their own ways of tackling the discredited health system. But these isolated initiatives seem doomed to fail without firm guidance from central government.

Congress must be made to work if America is to deal successfully with its complex problems, and if its people are not to lose faith in democracy. The questionable behaviour of politicians such as Dan Rostenkowski may prove to have been less damaging than the paralysis that may follow his fall.